Dear Ted: You recently wrote an article on addiction, particularly on relapse. I have found that many people equate relapse to failure. In my opinion, this is not true and as society considers relapse as failure, it only leads to shame and less opportunities to have a sober and healthy life. What are your thoughts on this difficult issue? Thanks, Julie
Dear Julie: You present an excellent point and thank for your question. I happen to agree with you that if our society keeps thinking of relapse as a shameful action, it will be difficult for more and more recovery in our world. Shame does not benefit anybody, as it causes unhealthy isolation, which usually leads to low self-esteem, causing anxiety and depression. Self-hatred can follow, causing a vicious circle leading to higher and higher levels of craving and addictive behaviors. Society often forgets that addictive behavior is not only through drugs and alcohol, but can manifest in addictive behaviors, such as porn, sex, relationships, social media, shopping, gambling, sugar and food, just to name a few.
Addiction can take hold abruptly or gradually. It becomes no longer a matter of choice, and overriding craving is a miraculous - but possible - act. Within the brain, an addict, of any type, escalates in emotions and incentive sensations are set into play within the brain chemistry to bring you back to your normal state of being. As emotions rise, there is a demand for serotonin, as one of serotonin's jobs is to stabilize emotional upset. As the demand for serotonin jumps in, there is a demand for dopamine, which works on the pleasure centers of the brain and looks for ways to find euphoria. As the brain finds pleasurable pathways, it remembers the escape of pain while finding pleasure. As the brain remembers this feeling, it sets up immediate pathways in order to avoid and escape from uncomfortable feelings. The dance between serotonin and dopamine is real; the brain and these hormones run your first reactions and behaviors.
Relapse is common and happens to everybody. If you think of relapse meaning a deterioration in someone's state of health after a temporary improvement, this can help you realize everybody has relapses in life. The key is to learn from the relapse, assess the relapse (rather than avoid the behavior) and then be able to use the wisdom on how to avoid the situation in the future. As you glean wisdom from historical relapses, you are able to use that information to have more serenity in your life. Allowing relapse to be an opportunity for proactive behaviors and finding new disciplines to promote your health will help break the stigma of a disease and allow you to use that wisdom of the experience to promote health in your life. Realizing everyone has their own relapse can help decrease shame and, in return, decrease the potential for future relapses. Choosing to learn from a relapse rather than beat yourself up or absorb the judgments of others is the key. We all make mistakes and if everybody can have more compassion and support for one another, society could decrease relapse stigma while increasing wisdom and healthy actions within our world. Being gentle, kind and compassionate to yourself, as well as others will lead to a healthier society.
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