“[T]he realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination and other social inequalities affect both people’s vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with drug-related harm.” (emphasis added) — Principles of Harm Reduction
Addiction is defined as physical and/or psychological dependence on a substance or behavior. Physical dependence leads to tolerance, where more of a substance is required to achieve the same effects, and to withdrawal symptoms when a substance is withheld. Addictions cause harm when they take priority over your well-being and the well-being of those around you.
Sometimes withdrawal effects alone cause an apparent addiction. Many medications, including antidepressants and analgesics, have a rebound effect. Stopping them abruptly causes a spike of symptoms, driving continued use of the medication. Tapering off can help prevent rebound effects.
Food intolerances can also cause a spike of detoxification symptoms when the food is stopped, driving continual consumption. If you have symptoms of an intolerance or sensitivity, take a careful look at the foods you eat all the time.
Survivors of childhood abuse and domestic violence often struggle with obsessive relationships. When love and abuse are twisted together, they create powerful trauma bonds which look like an addiction to abusive relationships. The bond makes it as painful to leave the relationship as it is to stay. As you build a strong connection with your self, you will redefine love to exclude abuse and gradually leave trauma bonds behind. Give yourself kindness when healing takes longer and hurts more than you expect.
Harm to your self-trust
Both physical and psychological dependence lead to cravings. It is difficult to trust your internal signals when you crave something that causes harm. Rebuild self-trust by continuing to look within for guidance and including past consequences of your choices in your decisions. Cravings may have a sense of slipperiness or imbalance that helps you recognize them.
Reduce the harm
Our culture often labels addicts as bad people and addiction as a moral failure. Rather than label behaviors or people as unacceptable, the Harm Reduction Coalition advocates a more compassionate approach:
- Meet people where they are now.
- Reduce the harm of drug use.
- Help people meet their needs.
It is natural to want to numb, soothe, and avoid emotional and physical pain. At times, using a drug or other addictive behavior may be your best available choice to meet those needs. You can reduce the harm by having compassion for your choice. As you seek out more resources, your choices will change.
When your addiction feels compulsive or out of control, you can change your routine in some small way or add a small delay. Observe the compulsion as it moves through you. Notice how your body responds. What needs are met? What needs are still there?
Meeting ourselves now, in the present, with our present behaviors, is the only leverage point for change and the only entry point for compassion.
Manage your emotions
An event is traumatic when it overwhelms our available resources. It can leave behind not only intense terror, rage, or pain, but also the memory of feeling overwhelmed. Even after the traumatic event has ended and more resources are available, we continue to avoid emotions that are remembered as overwhelming.
Emotions are made up of physical sensations and energy inside you. When working with emotions, name the sensations you notice. For fear, you might notice shallow breathing and tightness in your belly. If you don’t notice any sensations, you might be dissociated, so you can name that. The following techniques can help you manage your emotions.
1. Dial down the intensity
Imagine a dial marked from 0-100 which controls the intensity of your emotions. Start at 0, with emotions completely suppressed. Turn the dial up slightly, to perhaps 3 or 5, and notice how that feels. Any time you feel overwhelmed, you can turn the dial to control the intensity of your emotions.
The dial helps you explore the edges of an emotion rather than jumping into the middle and getting flooded. A small amount of emotion can be surprisingly tolerable.
If the dial and the following techniques do not have any effect, you might be resonating with someone else’s emotions, since your tools will not work on their emotions. Just considering the possibility can bring relief.
2. Give emotions more room
Many people learn to keep emotions tightly compressed in their bodies as tiny children. Back when our nervous systems were still forming and we had few coping skills, almost any emotion was overwhelming, especially if our parents did not model effective emotion management.
To feel the extent of your adult body, wiggle your fingers and toes. Stretch through your heels and feel the length of your legs. Take a deep breath and feel the width of your torso. With the intensity dial at a comfortable level, allow the emotion to expand through your whole body. Some blocks take time to dissolve. Notice where the emotion can expand and where it is still blocked.
It is a lot of work to keep emotions compressed. It is less work and lowers the intensity of the emotion when you give it more room.
3. Let the wave flow through you
Emotions are meant to move through us, flowing and ebbing like ocean waves. With the intensity at a comfortable level and as much space available in your body as possible, allow your emotion to flow. Notice how your sensations change as it swells and recedes. Does a different emotion arise? Watch it move as well.
Honor your choices
As you learn new techniques to manage your emotions, some addictions will fall away. Others may need professional intervention or attendance at a twelve-step group to resolve over time. Wherever you are in that process, reduce the harm as much as you can and honor your choices in the moment. You are doing the best you can with the resources you have available.
The Icarus Project publishes a free 40-page guide online: “Harm Reduction Guide To Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs & Withdrawal.”
Twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Codependents Anonymous offer fellowship and assistance for people recovering from various addictions. Survivors of Incest Anonymous offers fellowship and assistance using a similar model for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
In Riding Between the Worlds, Linda Kohanov discusses emotional congruence, emotional resonance, and emotional skills. Horses and sensitive humans are more comfortable around emotional congruence.