Understanding the Creation, Complications, and Management of Addictive Surges
Copyright © 2018 Dr J.L. Redd,
Solace Emotional Health (801) 785-8885
The purpose of this article is threefold: (1) to gain a better understanding of how an addiction is created by learning about the neuroscience of addiction; (2) to conceptualize the complications, chaos, and damage that is caused when we over-stimulate our brains; and (3) to explain powerful skills that can be used to manage sexual compulsions or addictions of any type. This information is particularly applicable to sexual issues, but is also relevant to understanding many different types of addictions.
A Two-Part Brain
There are 2 significant parts of the brain that are correlated with the creation of most addictions: the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain, just inside the forehead. This part of the brain is the source of what we call the “higher functions”; moral reasoning, rational thoughts, logical thinking, values of right and wrong, caring about relationships, guilt, remorse, and consequences.
Another part is the limbic system, located in the center of the head. The primary objective of the limbic system is to keep us alive. It is the source of survival instincts and our innate desire to procreate. A distinguishing difference between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex is that the limbic system does its job by means of feelings, emotions, and instincts; it does not have the capacity to think. Because it does not “think” (like the prefrontal cortex), there is no shame, no guilt, no morals, and no values associated with the limbic system. It is not immoral, rather it is “A-moral,” because it is void of any moral reasoning or thinking. Some suggest that 90% – 95% of our behavior is prompted by this subconscious limbic region of the brain. In other words, much behavior is driven by subconscious limbic emotions that, like an iceberg, are predominately underwater or subconscious.
These two parts of our brain work in concert with each other. The balance between these two regions, has an immense impact on the quality of life. The tug-of-war sometimes felt between what we think is right (pulling in one direction) and what we feel like doing (pulling in a different direction), is a battle between the prefrontal cortex and the subconscious limbic part of the brain. Our thoughts about what we think is right or wrong (originating from the prefrontal cortex), is usually easy to identify. However, it is often more difficult to determine the exact origin of those very strong but subconscious limbic emotional surges.
Any stress or painful feeling activates the limbic alarm system. If the stress is severe enough, the limbic system shuts down the prefrontal functions, creating a scenario that makes the “survival need” an absolute priority. For example, if somebody is holding your head underwater (in an attempt to kill you), the limbic alarm will activate and immediately shut down prefrontal functioning. When this happens, moral reasoning disappears and that breath of air becomes an absolute priority. In that moment, you are not worried about what you’re going to eat for lunch, or if you will be late for work. Your only focus is that desperate need to get a breath of air. With the prefrontal functions shut down, you will do whatever it takes to get that breath. If you had a knife in your hand, would you stab the guy? If you didn’t have a knife, would you pop him in the nose, pull his hair out, or dig at his eyes? Without prefrontal functions, most people will do whatever is necessary to get that breath of air. This life-saving limbic process is God-given, powerful, persistent, and dominant.
How Addictions Are Created
In the brain there are several million receptor/receiver connections, each with a “synapse” or synaptic gap. Communication through this synapse is facilitated by “neurotransmitters” or “neurochemicals.” Two chemicals associated with most addictions are Dopamine and Glutamate. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical, glutamate is the memory chemical. Dopamine helps facilitate a feeling of pleasure on a trip to Disneyland. Glutamate creates a memory that Disneyland was a source of pleasure. When we eat something delicious, dopamine gives us a feeling of satisfaction, glutamate reminds us about the source of that satisfaction. Functionally, these two chemicals work hand-in-hand and play an important role in creating passion and motivation to work hard, study diligently, stick with a task. As long as these neurochemicals are dispersed in appropriate amounts, dopamine helps us feel content, happy, and satisfied, glutamate reminds us about the source of that satisfying feeling.
However, if the limbic system receives a consistent “over stimulation” or “flash flood” of these chemicals, it can eventually create a switch in our limbic priority system. When this switch in the limbic system happens, the need for stimulation can become more important than our need for survival, and the result of this switch is an addiction. When the priority of the limbic system switches, the need for stimulation becomes more important than the need for survival. Consequently, the need for stimulation is felt as urgently and intensely as if you have gone without drinking water for 2 days, or without eating food for 2 weeks. In response to these intense feelings and as an attempt to “get what the limbic system feels like you need,” the limbic system shuts down prefrontal functioning, and creates something like a “one man tug-of-war” with the limbic system pulling in one direction, and NO prefrontal pull in the opposite direction.
What does addictive behavior look like? A hungry old man walks into a grocery store with just enough money to purchase food to keep him alive. However, after noticing the cigarettes behind the counter, he buys cigarettes with what little money he has, rather than the food. Why? Because the need for the Nicotine stimulation, has become more important than survival. A group of men huddle around a little tin-can fire late at night in 12 degree weather, waiting for an arrival of their preferred drug. Why? Because the anticipated drug stimulation, is more important than being in a warm house with their family. An elderly widow in a gambling casino is wasting away her life savings. Why? Because the stimulating thought of money is more important than her savings account. Additionally, her prefrontal cortex has been shut down and she is not thinking rationally. She will likely feel terrible tomorrow, but in that moment, the stimulation she seeks is more important than anything else.
In summary, we create addictions by over stimulating (or flash flooding) our limbic system with dopamine and glutamate. The overstimulation of our limbic system, creates a switch in the limbic priority system. When stimulation becomes more important than survival, we have an addiction.
Other Complications From Over Stimulating the Limbic System
We have received many warnings about the dangers of looking at pornography. Here are some other consequences of over stimulating our brains. These complicating effects can happen with each and every flash flood:
- Prefrontal functions are hijacked, creating the scenario of a one-man tug-o-war. The limbic system is pulling one direction with no resistance pulling in the opposite (moral reasoning) direction.
- Stimulation becomes as important as survival.
- Raises the pleasure thermostat and creates a greater disparity between current behavior and our ability to feel pleasure. The higher the pleasure thermostat (or hedonic set point), the more difficult it is to feel happiness. This often creates depression.
- Damages neuropathways, which create a condition that fits the medical model for a brain disease.
- Damages relationships. The shame and guilt associated with flash flooding our brain, will often sever the closeness and connection we feel with others. This disconnect is counterproductive to human happiness.
- The event is deeply imbedded in our memory
Fighting the Limbic System: A Futile Fight
When we get “pounced on” by a massive wave of temptation or an addictive surge, we will instinctively clench our fists, grit our teeth, and desperately try to show our valor by fighting the cravings and urges. My opinion is that fighting the limbic system (because of its pervasively persistent power), is like getting into a limbic boxing ring with Mike Tyson. He will beat our face in and bite our ear off, but we will not win the boxing match. Fighting the limbic system is like fighting a limbic enemy army on a bicycle with nothing more than a squirt gun. Furthermore, the limbic fight could be compared to maintaining a fighting stance with a wave. The first few waves on a hot summer day might feel good, but the waves come at us every 10 seconds, day and night. Eventually, if we maintain a fighting stance, the waves will wear us out. It is a futile fight.
So, what can we do? We learn how to surrender.” We learn how to give up the fight with the limbic system. Surrendering does not imply giving into the limbic cravings, rather giving up the fight with them. We get out of the boxing ring as quickly as we can. We raise a white flag in the face of the limbic enemy army. We learn how to surf the addictive surges, rather than attempting to valiantly fight the waves. My therapeutic experience has taught me that those who learn how to “surrender,” rather than valiantly fighting them, will experience much more success.
An Alternative to Fighting: The 2-Minute Sequence
An effective alternative to fighting addictive surges is to learn how to “surrender.” This two-minute alternative has 4 steps: Move, Recite, Pray, and Soothe. Each of these steps strategically targets different dimensions of an addictive wave.
#1 Move – within 3 seconds
The purpose of movement is two-fold: (1) Our brain goes where our body goes, so get the body and brain moving away from the temptation or triggering situation; (2) initiate an activity before our limbic system has a chance to respond. In other words, we want to trick ourselves into doing something before our emotional reaction begins to pull us toward the stimulating activity. Why three seconds? There is nothing symbolic about 3 seconds. Ultimately, however, we want to automate the use of this two-minute sequence so that it starts automatically whenever a subconscious trigger is activated. When is the best time to make the decision to move? The second we feel a wave beginning to surge, an inappropriate thought beginning to nest, or an unwanted feeling beginning to gnaw at us. The important thing is to initiate “the sequence” before the wave is ready to crush us.
#2 Recite – A Future Picture Statement (or other memorized, inspirational passage)
There are two potent purposes of this step: (1) to kick-start or activate our prefrontal cortex; and (2) to remind us what we truly value in life. To prevent a prefrontal hijack, the recitation of a Future Picture Statement (or a favorite memorized passage) activates our prefrontal cortex, and simultaneously reminds us what we really value in life. It reminds us there are things that matter much more in our life than the moment of stimulation. It also helps overcome the One-Man tug-o-war by activating prefrontal functions. Additionally, the more we recite the goals in the Future Picture Statement (or a memorized inspirational passage), the more we program our brain to follow those patterns of behavior.
#3 Pray – Specifically for what you need to succeed
The purpose of this step is to invite the help of the “Creator of Worlds Without Number.” Jesus Christ created worlds without number, under the direction of His Father. Having the knowledge to create worlds without number, coupled with the fact that he not only bore our sins, but experienced our deepest feelings, places Him in a very unique position to help us with our challenges. Does He understand addictions? Does He have insights about overcoming compulsions? I believe so. Step three is calculated to invite His help. I believe we will have more success with Him, than we ever will have without Him. I believe we can more effectively access His help if our petitions are sincere and specific. I believe general prayers convey general answers; specific prayers convey specific answers. What can we specifically pray for? Whatever we feel like we need (to succeed) in that moment. An example: “Heavenly Father, a part of me wants to give into something I know is not appropriate, and there is another part of me wants to do what it right. Could you help me with an extra surge of strength? Could you give me with a thought that would help me get out of this tug-o-war that I’m in? Could you have someone call or text me?” I’ve worked with clients whose faith in God has been crushed and defeated; who are completely hopeless of any improvement. By diligently using step # 3 on a consistent basis, they have come to know how real and responsive He is! Give Him a chance. Be specific in your petitions. Don’t do this recovery work by yourself.
#4 Soothe – The Limbic Alarm
There are at least 3 things that activate limbic alarms:
- A biological surge
- Unwanted feelings like boredom, loneliness, anger, stress, offenses, frustration, depression, anxiety, physical pain, humiliation, discouragement. Although these emotions are part of our mortal experience, they can activate the limbic alarm system. When the Alarm goes off, it innocently and instinctually sends you to whatever is at the top of your “pleasure list.” Remember, the limbic priority is to avoid pain by seeking pleasure. If a memory of masturbation or a peek at pornography is at the top of your pleasure list, you can almost guarantee that just around the corner, you will have an addictive surge.
- Another way the limbic Alarm is activated, is by letting adversarial thoughts nest too long. Those invisible Satanic “Minions” will plant thoughts into your head like: “You have already slipped once, another time won’t make any difference;” or “you have been doing so well, that you deserve a reward.” It is a guarantee that these thoughts will hit you at your weakest moment. Don’t let them nest.Here are some ideas of things we can use to sooth the limbic alarm. Remember this entire sequence should only take 2 minutes. At this point in the process, we may only have about 30 seconds left.
- Listen to your favorite, soothing, uplifting song for 30 seconds
- Listen to 30 seconds of a comedian like Brian Regan or Jim Gaffigan
- Text or talk to someone
- Drink some water
- Eat some food
- Play a game you know you will win.
- Read an inspirational thought – or uplifting idea from your patriarchal blessing
Finding something quick, effective, and efficient that works for you is a personal process. But typically, anything that helps you FEEL at ease, happy, and content, will work.
Statistically, this Two-Minute Surrender Sequence will work about 90 percent of the time if you start the Sequence within 3 seconds of first noticing, and use all 4 steps. See if you can have a success or two with the Sequence this week. Rather than having a meltdown the next time you feel an addictive surge, just say to yourself, “Here’s another opportunity to try The Sequence and see if it works.” “Let’s see if it’s really easier than fighting.” Move, Recite, Pray, and Soothe. Most of my clients have found this two-minute process is much easier and less painful than fighting, and a lot more enjoyable than failing. This constitutes what I call an “in-the-moment” management skill. In describing this SEQUENCE, we often use 3 synonyms: Surrender, Surf and Manage. Knowing how strong and pervasive the limbic system is, “Surrendering” (or giving up our fight with the limbic enemy army) is a better choice than engaging in a “futile fight.” Learning how to surf the addictive surge is more enjoyable than taking the wave in the face every 10 seconds day and night. Quickly getting out of the limbic boxing ring is a more effective management strategy than punching it out with Mike Tyson. For many clients this SEQUENCE, used over and over again, becomes automated and starts itself almost without thinking about it.
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