Licensed Professional Counselor
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Helping people to heal and grow in their lives.

Overcoming Addictive and Compulsive Behaviors

Addictive and compulsive behaviors (such as alcohol and drug dependence/abuse, cigarette addiction, compulsive shopping and eating, pornography addiction, relationship addiction, etc.) often go hand-in-hand with trauma, anxiety, depression, and relationship problems. Trauma is often a hidden underlying source of addictive and compulsive behaviors. In fact, it is estimated that approximately one-third of those who suffer from the after-effects of trauma turn to alcohol or drug use for relief. Similarly, research indicates that the more trauma and neglect one experiences, the greater their risk for gambling disorders and sexual addiction.

Those who've experienced trauma are not the only ones to struggle with addictive and compulsive behaviors though. Addictive and compulsive behaviors are often used as a coping mechanism. If your life feels out of control due to experiencing intense and uncomfortable emotions (e.g., sadness, hurt, grief, shame, anxiety) or you struggle to handle your stress, then it's understandable that you would want to comfort yourself in some way. If you never learned healthy coping skills, such as how to self-soothe, how to tolerate and regulate your emotions, or how to calm yourself, then it actually makes a lot of sense as to why you may have over-relied on an external substance or behavior (e.g., alcohol, drugs, food, unhealthy relationships, etc.) to calm yourself and to try to make yourself feel better.

In my work with addictive and compulsive behaviors, I find it very helpful to work on developing healthy, internal coping skills (e.g., relaxation training, breathing techniques, calming self-talk, establishing a healthy relationship with emotions, getting comfortable with body sensations, and mindfulness of uncomfortable thoughts). I also focus on the underlying painful feelings (e.g., anxiety, depression, hurt, sadness, anger) and emotional traumas (e.g., past abuse, loss of a loved one, a relationship breakup) that often act as intense triggers for addictive and compulsive behaviors. Further, I explore the role of your relationships and social network - strengthening supportive relationships and cleaning up unhealthy relationships can have a significantly positive impact.

The Stages of Change model is an approach that I find very useful with addictive and compulsive behavior (or any change for that matter). The stages of change include:

  • Precontemplation - You're not considering changing your problematic behavior and you may be unaware of any negative consequences to your behavior.
  • Contemplation - You're starting to look at the pros and cons of your behavior and are considering making a positive change.
  • Preparation - You're preparing to make a positive change.
  • Action - You're working on changing your behavior.
  • Maintenance - You're developing new skills that allow you to sustain your positive changes.
  • Relapse - A return to older, problematic behaviors. Relapse is not uncommon and is a helpful step as long as it is used as an opportunity to learn, grow, and become stronger.

A common mistake people make when trying to initiate a positive change is that upon realizing they want to make a change (contemplation stage), they abruptly make the change (action stage). However, since they did not prepare themselves (preparation stage) for this change, they cannot sustain their change and thus experience a sense of failure (relapse stage).

By working on the preparation stage, you can adjust the structure of your daily life to support the positive action you are taking. For example, if you wanted to stop drinking or become a moderate drinker, you might prepare yourself by finding new ways to have fun, new ways to manage stress, and develop new social contacts and habits that do not revolve around alcohol. The counseling work that I do around addictive and compulsive behaviors facilitates realistic and sustainable positive action that is supported by solid preparation.

There are a number of other approaches that inform my work with addictive and compulsive behaviors. As mentioned above, trauma is often an underlying source of addictive and compulsive behaviors. One counseling technique that is very useful for working with trauma is EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a very effective therapy approach used to overcome the emotionally painful effects of trauma and abuse, as well as a wide range of other emotional conditions.

There are two very powerful counseling approaches that utilize EMDR for working specifically with addictive and compulsive behaviors. One is Dr. A.J. Popky's DeTUR Protocol. The other is Dr. Robert Miller's Feeling-State Addiction Protocol. In my clinical experience, I've found both of these approaches to be very effective.

Another important factor to consider are attachment wounds - if you've been deprived of essential emotional needs in childhood (e.g. love, happiness, fun, acceptance, nurture, affection, approval, emotional connection, bonding, adventure) and then you experience these types of positive feelings when you engage with an addictive or compulsive behavior, it can be a powerfully positive experience. There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel joy, excitement, or connection. The problem is when addictive and compulsive behaviors get linked with - and thus are depended on - to create these positive emotional states. The Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy (DNMS) is helpful for filling in these emotional deficits so that they can be experienced internally, decreasing the desire to try to get these needs met through a fleeting and potentially detrimental source.

Both anxiety and depression can play a significant role in addictive and compulsive behaviors. When this is the case, addressing the anxiety and/or depression can be an essential step to treating the addictive or compulsive behavior and cannot be overlooked.

In my work with addictive and compulsive behaviors, there are other important areas of focus, which include

  • Developing self-care skills
  • Learning to set healthy boundaries
  • Relapse prevention planning
  • Developing strategies to deal with cravings and urges
  • Learning to have fun, naturally
  • Addressing negative thinking and negative beliefs
  • Establishing community support
  • Cultivating spiritual connection

Another type of dependency that I work with is codependency - sometimes called "relationship addiction." With codependency, a person becomes fixated on another person - hoping to avoid abandonment and/or desiring that person's approval, attention, validation, and love. This leads to emphasizing the needs and feelings of another person over your own well-being; which in turn leads to experiencing a sense of emptiness within and the belief that the other person - and only the other person - can make you feel whole and complete. In this work, I focus on helping you to identify, honor, and express your needs in your relationship. Developing a healthy sense of individuality and independence, coupled with a capacity for intimacy is another key area of focus. Often, underlying codependency there are emotional traumas and attachment wounds that can be addressed with EMDR, the DNMS, and other counseling techniques.

While addictive and compulsive behaviors are typically seen in a very negative light, I see them as an attempt to feel better. Unfortunately, this strategy creates a lot of negative consequences in life and can feel very degrading. By addressing the painful triggers to addictive and compulsive behaviors, healing trauma and attachment wounds, developing coping skills, and learning to self-care, you can enjoy life, free of the behaviors that plague you. This may include learning to enjoy certain behaviors in moderation, or if it makes more sense, living without these behaviors completely.

For Counseling in Portland, feel free to call me today at (503) 887-3309, email me, or use my Contact Form to book a counseling session or to set up a FREE consultation.

Office located in NW Portland, Oregon. Serving the Portland metro area, including Beaverton, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego, Tigard, West Linn, Milwaukie, Oregon City, Tualatin, Gresham, and Vancouver, WA.

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