I’ve been studying a provocative theory on the cause of addictive behavior. I am not endorsing this view, merely sharing.
Amid a mountain of theory and evidence for the ‘addiction as a brain disease’ model, one psychiatrist seems to have started a movement that speaks to the underlying emotions related to addiction.
This includes all addictive behaviors, including chronic abuse of alcohol, drugs, sex, spending, gambling, internet use, and so on.
The originator of this emotional theory on addictions, Lance M. Dodes, MD, claims that all addiction is caused by one underlying emotion: helplessness. According to Dodes, every addictive act is preceded, with or without conscious awareness, by a feeling of intolerable helplessness.
Here’s how the addiction process breaks down, according to Dodes:
• During the natural course of your day, normal events trigger intolerable feelings of helplessness.
• The helplessness triggers fury or rage.
• The addictive behavior provides a ‘solution’ to the helplessness-rage cycle. It’s a way out.
Additional Notes on the Dodes Helplessness-Rage Theory of Addiction
Everyone experiences helplessness in varying degrees. Addicts may be especially prone to feeling trapped in helpless feelings, given their learning experiences earlier in life.
Whereas one person may feel helpless for a few moments until a solution arises, an addict may have learned, based on prior life experience, there is no direct solution to feeling helpless or that attempting to find a direct solution is futile.
This would make emotional resilience of particular interest to those suffering with addiction.
Example of a Trap
A friend needs your help moving next Saturday morning and you agree to lend a hand and you’ve owed this friend a favor for some time. You find out that evening that your spouse needs you to babysit on Saturday, as she’ll be out with friends. Meanwhile, a co-worker calls to see if you can cover her shift on Saturday. Her niece is having an operation and she feels she should be there to offer support.
Competing expectations from others are a common cause of emotional helplessness. You want to please everyone, of course. But you can’t. This is where an addict begins to feel trapped. A healthy response would be to discuss your situation with the parties involved, set priorities, and proceed along the best path that emerges from the process. In other words, deal with dilemmas directly.
• You may offer to help your friend early in the morning, but only until you need to be home to babysit.
• Is there someone at your friend’s house that can watch the kids while you load the moving truck?
• Can your spouse go out with her friends on Sunday instead?
• Who knows what solutions you might discover when you involve people and take on the issue directly.
Do addicts not see a way out of common, unavoidable traps?
An addict may not see the option or utility of enlisting help to get out of life’s traps or deal with conflicts directly, according to Dodes. Trying to find a solution may appear futile. Maybe the term learned helplessness is a fit here. This is where life gets dangerous. Feeling trapped and now angry because of all the unfair expectations, an addict may, in those moments, decide to act out. We could think of the addictive behavior as acting out, which is a rebellious, indirect solution.
With all this crap going on, I need a drink!
Screw it! I’m going to eat whatever I want today.
Who wouldn’t get high on a day like today?
The addictive behavior is an escape from the trap, although it doesn’t solve the original problem of feeling trapped and ultimately makes matters worse.
When you’re feeling trapped (consciously or unconsciously) any decisive action can be experienced as empowering. You no longer feel helpless. This may be why some people feel better after deciding to stop off at the bar on the way home from work.
Who cares! I’m going to drink today and that’s all there is to it. This decision may be made a 2 PM and the addict feels better already. It wasn’t alcohol; just deciding to do something, anything, gives you a sense of control, which is desperately needed when feeling trapped.
This is what I have on the theory of addiction promoted by Dr. Dodes. I’m currently reading his book: Breaking Addiction: A 7-Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction.
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