Acceptance, Mindfulness, and Addiction: The Problem of Experiential Avoidance and the Verbal Nature of Addiction

The experience of addiction can have a profound affect on an individual’s life. Multiple areas of functioning can be negatively affected, including social, occupational, legal, physical, and financial areas. Perhaps more profoundly, as a result of these consequences and the addiction itself, psychological functioning can be enormously impacted and can result in long-term consequences such as homelessness, irreversible medical and/ or psychological conditions, and loss of vitality. For those who truly suffer from addiction, they come to be ruled by these long-term effects and find recovery difficult to embrace.

Experiential Avoidance and Control

It is common for any individual to want to avoid negative internal experiences. We are taught from a very young age that it is not okay to experience pain, sadness, anxiety, rejection, negative thoughts, and the like. We learn that we must control these and other experiences we have labeled as “bad” or negative and we learn to control something we consider “broken” by “fixing-it.”

Control can work in positive ways to improve our lives; however, it becomes problematic when we begin to apply the same kind of control strategies to all aspects of our lives. Trying to create a certain image, “happy face,” or a different “you” can become an exceedingly painful process. The use of mind-altering substances can become a solution to control one’s own internal experiences; however, it is misapplied. The paradox is that the treatment of avoiding the primary solution (alcohol, heroin, etc), amplifies the avoidance of the internal experiences. When the underlying “root of the problem” goes unaddressed, and the primary focus of treatment is the behavior (use of the drug); it is similar to putting a band-aid on a broken leg, continuing to walk on that leg, and getting frustrated when it doesn’t heal.  Simply walking it off just will not do; however, this is the verbal nature of addiction. Deliberate attempts to not think about using, or the triggers to use such as pain, boredom, or anxiety may actually intensify thoughts and memories of using. It is not surprising that we continue to employ these strategies because it is all we know. So how do we begin to change the idea that we must modify our internal experiences (e.g. avoid or never experience anxiety)? How can we gain understanding and acceptance of ourselves and develop needed tools so we can make life-affirming choices?

Mindfulness and Acceptance

According to Dr. Robyn Walser, Ph.D., “Mindfulness” is defined as bringing your complete attention to the present experience, on a moment-to-moment basis, and with awareness of judgement. It is the practice of compassionately observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as an ongoing flow of events that do not necessarily need to be acted upon. “Acceptance” means to willingly take what is offered and hold without protest to reaction. While this may seem simple, the practice can be quite hard and requires an ongoing commitment. The mind routinely drags us into its space of focusing on past events that cannot be changed, and planning for future events to avoid pain. This process is known as “Stress Rehearsal” and it is an “everybody condition.” We get caught up in what our mind has to say, following its directions (despite consequences), and rarely recognizing that we are a part of this process. The mind is tenacious, rarely letting up from an ongoing commentary on our lives, situations, and how we are viewed in the world. It’s happens every moment, every day, and most of the time it’s the same cycle of thoughts: “I need to try harder” or “I should have said this” or “I shouldn’t have said that” or “I need to stop and grow up.” These are not our ideas, but more ideas that others have bestowed upon us. The paradox is when we begin to “buy “everything we tell ourselves as truth, the evaluating and judging process of the mind creates painful and difficult struggles that impact the quality and meaning in life.

Consider this thought “I am a junkie.” What does that imply about how you see yourself? How you perceive others’ view of you? And how you show up for your life? More than likely, you have embraced several stereotypes about what it means to be a “junkie” and this becomes your truth. But what if you brought awareness to this process and looked at it objectively? You may come to discover that the label you give yourself is based on the mind hanging out in the past (focusing on things you have done) or worried about the future (how will you cope without your drug of choice or wondering when you’ll get your next fix to avoid the painful withdrawals and emotions). The key problem is when we get stuck in the literal meanings of the mind, we can no longer be present in this moment.

The Present Moment

In Addiction we can spend hours in our minds thinking about what happened yesterday, last week, last month, or even years ago; and engage in a process of evaluating how things should have been different had we only acted or said something different, went right versus left, or said no to the pills, alcohol, or weed. As we review these memories, we create narratives or stories that explain what happened, what should have happened, and how to avoid pain in the future. The stories that get built can be extensive and take on their own function in our lives. The stories that get built around addiction (for instance, one story might be “I have ruined my relationship with my mom and she will never trust me again”) narrows the lens on one’s life based on these stories (“therefore, if I am a junkie then no one can trust me and I cannot be in any relationships). Loneliness is born in these places and lives to cut us off from community, family, and healthy relationships.

If we take a moment to observe the places where our mind spends it time, we will notice that we rarely show up to what is there to be experienced in the moment as it unfolds. In practicing mindfulness and mindful-based activities with our clients, we will speak to the moment not only in mindful exercises, but also by pausing and asking you to observe what is happening right now. We may ask you to just listen or observe, feel, or sense. In doing so, our clients learn that the {“now” is a relatively good moment” and they reconnect with something that was once lost: a sense of wonder, beauty, and clarity. When an experience is seen clearly, you gain the opportunity to respond differently to it; you set the stage for “choice” because you are no longer struggling with needing to “control” or make thoughts, feelings, or sensations go away. Freedom arises when we learn to watch our thoughts objectively versus something we have to buy as truth.