I am pleased to be publishing this guest post by a very respected colleague and friend, Dr. Mark Chamberlain, who has extensive expertise working with individuals and couples dealing with various addictions. I frequently recommend couples to his book and blog referenced below. This post describes an alternative strategy to fighting urges in addictions:
Two potent drives keep vying for the driver’s seat of our lives. One is the inclination to succumb to our cravings; the other, an equally potent desire to fight those cravings. Neither lasts long at the controls before the other gets restless and ramps up again, going to great lengths to take back the steering wheel, convinced that its map to happiness is the right one.
Our feelings are somewhat mixed, obviously, but we tend to spend most of our time in “fight those cravings” mode, pitching in and throwing our weight on that side of the tug-of-war. We never suspect that the way we fight our cravings actually helps keep us stuck in unwanted habits.
But think about it: fighting is just as reactive as succumbing. In both modes our nervous systems get cranked up and our perception narrows to tunnel vision. Both also tend to operate silently, keeping us closed-off from others and stuck in our own inner world and typically involve behavior patterns that are familiar and repetitive in nature.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to go about kicking a habit. Instead of this roller coaster of resisting and succumbing, we can adopt a friendly, collaborative mentality toward both our cravings and our desire to fight.
Like the “fight or flee” reflex and the “seek and succumb” reflex, this new approach taps into a basic human survival mode. It’s our “tend and befriend” instinct.
What Is “Tend & Befriend”?
“Tend and befriend” behavior, a term coined by UCLA professor Shelley Taylor, is an instinctive way of thinking and acting that helps us deal with stresses and threats in a very unique way. It leads us to seek connection and collaboration instead of preparing for warfare or surrender. Instead of keeping us at odds, it gets us back in rapport with ourselves and others.
Whereas our “fight or flee” reflex releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and the “seek and succumb” reflex releases the pleasure chemical dopamine, “tend and befriend” mode releases the “cuddle and connect” chemical, oxytocin.
No matter how high we ratchet up our efforts to fight cravings or how long we keep trying to fight, the stress hormones that get released simply don’t provide good long-term protection or boost our immunity to destructive behavior patterns. The “cuddle and connect” hormones, on the other hand, last longer in our system and have a much more settling effect.
The “fight and flee” and “seek and succumb” reflexes ratchet up our sense of drivenness and put us in a closure-seeking, yearning for completion mode of operation. We keep feeling antsy until we reach the goal our nervous system circuitry has locked onto. “Tend and befriend”, on the other hand, is itself a settled state. It is accompanied by a sense of resolution. It’s our brain’s way of registering, “closure achieved”. And that is what enables this friendlier approach to sustain more successful change over the long haul. We can carry on with our lives over longer and longer periods without going back to addictive behaviors, eventually giving them up for good.
How Can We Tend & Befriend Our Way to Freedom from Bad Habits?
1. Reach out for understanding to dissipate distress. When we feel out of sorts, our sense of neediness can build and build, making us more and more susceptible to bad decisions. Fortunately, our nervous system has a release valve, and it’s opened when we voice our vulnerability to a loved one and we sense that they empathize with the hard time we’re having. Empathy is the Holy Grail of the Tend and Befriend mode, providing us with an inexplicably potent emotional sustenance.
2. Come up with a diminutive, an endearing nickname, for your craving. See if you can make it a nickname that highlights the good in that part of you and gives her the benefit of the doubt. “Sweet Tooth” works better than “Glutton” and something like “Soother” may work better than “Escape Artist”. Start calling your craving self by name and take the time to get to know what makes him tick.
3. Record “wanting selfies”. When a craving hits, use your phone to record a video. Put into words what it’s like to want to give in. Say what you want to do and why it seems so attractive right now. Describe what you feel in your body as you pay attention to that wanting. You are giving your inner craver her say instead of giving her her way. Now watch the “wanting selfie” you just recorded. Adopt the mindset of a curious, compassionate supportive self who wants to understand and learn how to better collaborate with this inner craver.
4. Extend compassion toward your craving self. When your inner craver tugs at your consciousness, give him your full attention in a caring way. Tell him you understand that this is a moment of wanting, and when we don’t follow through right away on our wants we feel deprived, and deprivation is a form of suffering. Assure him that his desires are real and understandable. Let him know that you get how potent his feelings are and that, because he’s important to you, his feelings are important to you.
5. Comfort your craving self with a pat on the back or a hug. Reach back and place your palm on the back or your neck or between your shoulder blades. Or try wrapping your arms across your chest like you’re giving yourself a hug. In your mind, let your craving self know that you’re sorry you’ve been at war with her and that you have no intention of treating her that way anymore.
6. Give a hero’s welcome to your holdout. Hiroo Onoda, the last known holdout Japanese soldier, emerged from hiding in the jungle of a Philippine island in 1974, three decades after World War II ended. He returned to Japan to a hero’s welcome. You may not usually agree with the objectives for which your craving self has been fighting. But you have to hand it to him: he’s kept trying to do his best to give you what he thinks you should want. Celebrate his persistence and heart, even as you ask him to hand over his sword.
7. Prioritize connection to lessen the frequency and strength of cravings. Research has shown that spending time with loved ones, physical touch, and talking all release the “cuddle and connect” hormone, oxytocin. And increases in oxytocin diminish the strength of cravings and reduce drug-seeking behaviors in addicts. Amazingly, our time with loved ones doesn’t even have to feel peaceful or seem pleasing to have all these beneficial effects. Even periods of extended silence with a teen or the turmoil of dinner time with toddlers leaves us in a more stress-reduced, emotionally inoculated state.
8. Empathize with the benevolent intent of your craving. Don’t stay caught up in its surface manifestation; let your craving know that you see its deeper desire for you. “Thank you for reminding me that life shouldn’t be all work and no play. I appreciate this unmistakeable signal that my life is starting to get out of balance.”
9. “Tend and befriend” loved ones to activate your own circuitry. You don’t need to wait to be tended and befriended; your “tend and befriend” system gets turned on whether you’re in a giving or receiving role. Get in the habit of giving your kids foot rubs before they go to bed. Become the one in your social circle who gives hugs freely. Massage your spouse’s shoulders or hold hands as you take a walk. Comb your pets hair–or your teenage daughter’s. Oxytocin dosin’ in these ways inoculates us in very real ways against future relapse risk.
You can develop a stronger, more cooperative relationship with your craving self. You can invest time cultivating closer, more satisfying relationships with others. Both of these will strengthen your efforts to abstain from self-defeating behaviors. These endeavors make up an entirely different way of increasing self-discipline. If you’re willing to do the work, human connection can become a healthy addiction for you, and it will be the last addiction you’ll ever need!
Mark Chamberlain is a psychologist and the Clinical Director at Suncrest Counseling, which offers intensive treatment for individuals and couples healing from addictions. He is the author of several books including Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity and a blog on the same topic.
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