by Carla (Nelson) Berg

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How to permit "constructive" addictions yet prevent the other ones?







Surviving Sane

Carla's Collection

Bouncing Brains




One of the tricks that sometimes works is "stimulus substitution"

"ADDictive" Energy
The Catch-22 of a Stucky Brain


Last installment * I wrote about what it's like to have a heat- seeking psyche drawn to the edges where life is intense. Then I discussed some of the twists and turns such a drive can take, from literal mountain climbing to exploring the conceptual peaks inside our own heads.

No matter which way it manifests, the Catch-22 for all for edge- seekers, as I noted last time with a grin and a sigh, is that everything new becomes old eventually, which may make it hard to sustain engagement long term. Yet it's another part of our paradox that people like us tend to keep seeking only until we do not.

Some of the things we find at those edges turn out to feel so good, we are more than happy to keep on repeating them. But that can be another double-edged sword all its own, since overattachment can be just as big a problem as the opposite.

One bouncing-brained doctor friend sums up this facet of things as an "addiction to intensity." Another physician pal of mine, Phil Kavenaugh, a stimulus- driven psychiatrist, suggests that all attention difficulties involve what he calls "ADDictive energy," getting overly stuck on whatever works to fuel our engagement, whether that stimulus source happens to be pleasure or pain.

The notion that people can get over-attached to either pleasure or pain may also seem paradoxical if you're accustomed to thinking "addictions" are always about attachments that feel good. But that's not exactly the case.

Addictions are fueled by a search for relief, not a quest for pleasure per se.

How do you spell relief? To seek relief from boredom, a kid might get "addicted" to video games or an adult might develop a literal addiction to gambling. To seek release from feelings of low self- esteem, someone might get "addicted" to quarreling to compensate for feeling invalidated. Or to seek relief from feeling unlikable, someone might obsess on the nuances of every relationship, "addicted" to replaying each scene in his or her mind and "perserverating" as my psychiatrist pal might call it.

There is a growing body of medical evidence suggesting the "fix" people get from repetitive contact with certain kinds of stimuli has a "self-medicating" effect, a neurochemical lift the brain seeks to compensate for low spots in its own chemistry. It is thought this same dynamic might also be behind a large proportion of alcoholism and drug abuse, especially when there appears to be a genetic propensity within a family.

Whatever the cause, the consequence seems to be a "stucky" brain, to paraphrase a favorite term of another clinician I know.

The irony is that if overly stuck on an approved activity -- such as work -- critics fall back, even applaud, depending on what you achieve. There might be jokes like "get a life," but those jokes mix with envy at the tenacity which permits the accomplishments. It is only when we get stuck on counterproductive thoughts or activities that it's perceived as a problem to overcome.

So how to permit one kind of "addiction" while preventing the other? That is the ultimate Catch-22 for bouncing brains who fuel their brains with intensity.

Constructive obsession & stimulus substitution: Ideally, all bouncing brains would learn how to channel their heat- seeking energies into healthy outlets that help us grow and avoid getting attached to habits that hold us back. We'd allow constructive "addictions" that permit us to hyperfocus on writing books, creating paintings, unraveling the tangles in computer systems, or training to the point of mastery in a sport, but we'd also know how to turn it off when it's time to plug in to things less engaging.

But that's certainly easier said than done.

One of the tricks that sometimes works is "stimulus substitution," swapping one attachment for another. To take one rather amusing case, I know a kid who has hopped from being overattached to macaroni, to having Spaghetti-O's every day, to having nothing but Ramen soup for lunch, to eating only burgers and hot dogs for months. Rather than fight what's unlikely to change, his Machiavellian mother facilitates attachment-switching by periodically planting other temptations in his path. Bit by bit, she's broadened his palette and rotated his diet, even if he hasn't been cured of being overly stuck on one food group at a time.

So the good news is it's possible to redirect one's focus into healthier channels; the bad news is it often takes patient persistence, and a protracted process like this may lack the immediate feedback the heat-seeking psyche desires.

That latter problem can be attacked by building your own feedback loops.

Finding the feedback: If you don't have a Machiavellian parent around to plant healthy attachments in your path, or to deliver the "attagirl!" or "attaboy!" you need to hear when you're losing steam, then it's time to find your own reinforcements, not in penance for your "weakness," but as a vote for your wellbeing.

The simplest way, as most of us know but sometimes forget to do, is to pair benchmarks with benefits. Set small, reasonable goals and reward yourself when they're done. A benchmark could be as simple as "clean this corner today" and a benefit could be as modest as carry-out Chinese for a night off from cooking.

What about more complex problems that may not be so easily chunked into a "step a day" plan of attack? Those sorts of goals may take more elaborate forms of feedback.

One of the more effective reinforcement schemes I've seen is an online "Accountability Group" in which a circle of email pals swaps daily notes about their goals and plans, then met online in live chat once a week to discuss what has worked or not and cheer each other on.

A simpler path to a similar end might only take enlisting one trusted friend. The important part is to have a supportive exchange with someone other than that little voice in the back of your brain which may be as likely to beat you up as to cheer you on.

So if the going gets tough, don't go it alone. Enroll your mate, a friend, a relative, enlist a support group, coach, or therapist, and form your own team of coaches and cheerleaders.

Which costs are worth bearing? Benchmarks and coaches might be fine for tackling day to day tasks, but what about the larger life issues you ask? How is someone who needs to be obsessively intense in order to do his best supposed to earn a living? How much do I need to reshape myself, and how much should the world make space?

It all depends on where and how you want to fit in, doesn't it?

To some bouncing brains, nirvana looks like "normalcy." They don't like feeling different; they'd love nothing more than to be told how to round off their bumps as they yearn for more consistent acceptance.

Others enjoy their bumpier parts. They like being the nails who stand out a bit and take some pride in their differences, but struggle to find a way to thrive in a world where conforming is prized and different may only mean "less than" in too many employer's eyes.

The bottom line? Each of us has to decide for ourselves which costs are worth which benefits. That takes diving deep enough into your gut to figure out what moves you most, after which you can more easily see which trade-offs are worth which benefits.

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The important part is to have a supportive exchange with someone more than that little voice in the back of your brain...

Related links:

  • Footnote: News release regarding beta-endorphins and painful activities

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About the author: California science and health writer and veteran newspaper columnist, Carla (Nelson) Berg, is host of www. bouncingbrains. com and publisher of its digital magazine, HYPERTHINK_INK. She is also leader of GO MIND, the Mind-Brain Sciences Forum on CompuServe, a meeting place for mind professionals, and co-leader of GO ADD, where she has been a long-time advisor to adults and parents dealing with attention differences and a virtual talk show host interviewing specialists. The mother of two ADD teens, she jokes that she is also "clearly a source of their bouncing brain genes."


















FOOTNOTE: Some food for thought from the Vanderbilt University New Service, March 1998:

"The same drive to feel good that pushes an addict's need for drugs may underlie one of the more puzzling and disturbing of behavior problems -self-injury by people with autism [or other developmental disabilities]. Vanderbilt researchers have discovered strong evidence that people ... who compulsively strike their heads or bite themselves may do so because it prompts biochemical changes in their brains. In particular, certain forms of self-injury may prompt the release of a biochemical called beta-endorphin, the body's natural opiate. Beta endorphin binds to the same receptors in the brain as heroin and morphine. "While we can't say these patients feel a rush in the same way a heroin addict feels a rush, it may be a little like that," said Travis I. Thompson, director of the John F. Kennedy Center and professor of psychiatry and psychology. "They may learn that they feel better when they do this."

Might something similar may be going on in all "stucky" brains who wrestle with getting overattached to things that aren't "good" for them? Can you think of any "painful" activities that give you relief, it not also pleasure? If so, has anything worked to help disarm those triggers? How much of this same physiology might be behind the more severe overattachments that produce Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a condition which is thought to be related to autism neurologically? Readers who struggle with attachments they'd like to diminish, may be interested in the book Brain Lock, by physician Jeffrey Schwartz who presents a plan for "changing your brain chemistry."

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