The increasingly stressful nature of today's world has meant that growing numbers of people are sliding down the slippery slope of addiction in an attempt to numb themselves against the pressures of daily living. Few, if any, of us are entirely immune to the addiction trap and the many colourful masks that it wears in its attempts to ensnare us in a web of attachment. We're not just talking about smoking, drinking or drug use but also gambling, shopping, computer gaming and even Smartphone addiction. We’re living in a culture of instant gratification which leaves us constantly wanting more of everything. But the supposed benefits of all these behaviours are illusory and deceptive. While they might provide us with a very brief and temporary sense of euphoria or stress relief, such effects will soon wear off, leaving us feeling even worse than we did before. Whatever our substance or behaviour of choice, it will take greater and greater quantities to achieve the same effect each time, and before we know it we find ourselves trapped in an inexorable downward spiral with catastrophic consequences for our health, relationships and finances.
I'm no stranger to the perils of addiction myself and I'm not ashamed to admit that I sometimes used alcohol as a crutch to deal with the pressures of my former career in journalism. Faced with constant deadlines, long working hours, the angry backlash and abuse from readers any time we ran a story they didn't like, the ever-changing demands of new technology and the pressures to maintain circulation in an era of dwindling newspaper sales, it wasn't unusual for me to open a bottle of wine to take the edge off at the end of a stressful day. At no point did I consider my drinking to be a problem. I appeased myself with the knowledge that I was fully functioning - I wasn't falling down drunk, wasn't failing to turn up for work in the morning and wasn't drinking during the day, so as far as I was concerned I wasn't an alcoholic and didn't have a problem. But if I'm honest, and tot up the number of units of alcohol I was consuming in the average week, the fact is that I was drinking far more than was good for me and well in excess of the recommended 14 weekly units. Sometimes I still do, though nowadays my drinking tends to be more of a social activity, rather than used as an emotional crutch. Not that this makes any difference to the potential long-term health implications of drinking in large quantities.
I'm certainly not alone in this. Habitual drinking is a widespread problem that was highlighted last year in an excellent BBC documentary presented by Adrian Chiles who admitted to being horrified by the discovery that he sometimes drank 80 or 100 units of alcohol per week. Chiles decided to make the programme after becoming interested in people's ideas of what type of drinking constituted alcoholism. In the documentary, Drinkers Like Me, Chiles said he viewed himself as a social drinker and not an alcoholic, but admitted that people like him - the "constant drinkers, the toppers up" - were "the problem". Although his blood tests were completely normal, a scan showed he had mild to moderate fibrosis of the liver - a type of damage that includes scar tissue forming - and significant liver fat. The doctor told Chiles: "You can't carry on like this. You're at risk of disease progression to cirrhosis, liver disease and failure - and death."
Chiles said: "I think middle-aged 'supposedly moderate' drinkers need to take a look at ourselves. I encourage anyone, don't judge yourself, don't panic you're not going to drop dead, but go on an app like 'Drink Less' and measure what you're drinking, be honest with yourself for three weeks."
Like Chiles, I have no great desire to quit alcohol completely. I enjoy the social aspects of a good night out in the company of friends and a lot of great memories are associated with such occasions. Also, drinking has enabled me to reach and connect with a particular type of client who might otherwise view me with suspicion and mistrust. Drinkers and addicts tend to be more open with me because they view me as one of their own, rather than as a puritanical professional preaching to them from atop an ivory tower. As a conversational hypnotherapist, I actually do a lot of my best work in the pub. When a client is in their natural habitat and is feeling relaxed, comfortable and at ease, then their defences are down, which makes it that much easier to communicate directly with their subconscious in casual conversation and guide it gently towards finding a solution to their underlying problems. The crux of the work is often done without the client even realising that we've started the therapy. That's not to say that I don't appreciate the need for balance and moderation or to be mindful of the importance of leading by example. But many of those I've worked with in this way have either quit their problem behaviour entirely, or at the very least moderated it, and client feedback suggests that one of the key reasons they were so willing to embrace change was that the rapport we built over a pint helped to win their trust and pave the way for powerful transformation. My approach might be regarded by some as unorthodox but it gets results. Every individual is unique though and it's important to point out that different approaches work for different people. I know many excellent therapists who are tea-total and some who are ex-addicts who have quit entirely and their approaches to therapy are equally valid. I can only speak for what's worked for me.
It's not just booze that's a problem. Last year's Global Drug Survey produced alarming findings regarding the extent of recreational drug use in Scotland. In the annual survey, 61.9% of respondents reported having used cocaine in their lifetime, 51.7% having used in the last year. This compares to 25% and 17% globally. People in Scotland consume roughly double the global average of cocaine in a single session – 1.2 grams compared with 0.5 grams. Around one third of cocaine users in Scotland say they can get the drug delivered faster than a pizza (in under 30 minutes) – in Glasgow the figure is 36.7 per cent. People in Scotland are also more than twice more likely to seek emergency treatment for substance use-related emergencies than the global and English average. Meanwhile cannabis use is now so widespread that the police and court system have pretty much given up trying to enforce the law with regard to it. I once had a client who came to me for help with reducing her caffeine intake because she said too much coffee was keeping her awake at night. Midway through our initial pre-talk, she suddenly got up and asked if she could nip outside to smoke a joint! To her, smoking weed was such a normal part of her everyday life and routine that she was genuinely shocked when I suggested that her drug habit might be a bigger problem than the caffeine. And in case you're wondering, yes we sorted both.
Here at Phoenix we've already enjoyed significant success in helping clients to overcome addiction, including smoking, drug and alcohol-related issues. At the heart of our approach is demonstrating that it's possible for people to access altered states of consciousness safely through the practice of meditation and the use of techniques such as hypnosis and NLP games, without having to rely on harmful mind-altering substances. One young man who came to see me for help with his addiction to ketamine and cannabis was gobsmacked by the experience of his first ever hypnotherapy session and joyfully declared that hypnotic trance was "better than weed!" - a sentiment which has been echoed by many other clients. The reason Phoenix has such a high success rate with smoking and drug cessation is that we always aim to treat the cause and not the symptom. Addiction is usually a sign of some underlying cause of stress or trauma so the key to lasting change is to find and treat that underlying stressor rather than just the problem behaviour resulting from it. Removing a person's emotional crutch - whether that be tobacco, booze or drugs - without addressing the underlying issue can often do more harm than good. That's why we use techniques which instil a deeper sense of internal wellbeing in the client, enabling them to dispense with the crutch without suffering any ill-effects.
But substance abuse isn't the only problem. Many forms of addiction are more insidious in nature, like gambling, shopping, computer gaming and the great epidemic of the modern age - Smartphone addiction. All of these are results of our modern binge culture which has left us addicted to the naturally-occurring feelgood chemicals serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are stimulated by factors such as social acceptance, which is why we tend to be happier when we’re feeling loved and are the centre of attention. Here’s the problem - the digital age has turned a natural human response mechanism into a serious addiction. Nowadays we spend increasing amounts of time wired into social media, posting our every move on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and judging our own popularity and status by the number and nature of responses we receive. People become so driven by the need to be popular - and the need to be perceived by others as popular - that they accumulate hundreds of Facebook friends, many of whom they barely know, if at all, just to boost their social standing.
Serotonin and dopamine play an important part in the body’s recognition of pleasure and pain, reward and punishment. The body learns that success will be rewarded by the release of higher levels of these feel-good chemicals, whilst failure will not. This is why most people are so heavily driven to succeed and are left dejected or depressed by a setback. At the risk of stating the obvious, we want to feel good. The science behind this takes on considerable importance within the context of our modern culture of instant gratification. We all know that one of the biggest problems with any form of addiction, and drug addiction in particular, is that the more you’re exposed to the stimulus, the greater the quantity that will be required in future to achieve the same effect. For example, when you have your first taste of alcohol, it doesn’t take much to get you drunk very quickly. But as your body becomes habituated to the effects over time, your resistance grows and it will take more and more drinks to get you to that “happy place”. This is why so many addicts who start out taking relatively “soft” drugs such as cannabis will gradually progress to harder substances like cocaine and even heroin. As their bodies become accustomed to the drugs, it takes ever-greater quantities to recreate the high, with catastrophic knock-on effects for their overall health and wellbeing.
This is every bit as true when it comes to our addiction to internal chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. Each time somebody “Likes” one of our social media posts, it feeds into the pleasure/reward section of our brain and results in a release of serotonin, giving us a little mini-high. Our social media interactions become a barometer of our social standing and, consequently, a measure of our happiness. Here’s the problem though… because we’re essentially dealing with a drug addiction, it takes greater and greater quantities of serotonin to achieve the same ‘hit’ each time. So each picture you post on Facebook has to receive more “Likes” than the previous one in order for you to get the same level of buzz. If you don’t achieve that, then symptoms such as self-doubt and paranoia begin to seep in. Is my popularity decreasing? Don’t people like me anymore? Have I done something wrong? It might sound funny but it’s essentially true and we’re living in a culture in which many people - particularly the younger generation - have developed a dependency on the validation they receive on social media to the extent that they can’t feel happy without it. Their brains are overstimulated by constant exposure to electronic devices which they carry with them 24/7 and they are so hopelessly addicted to serotonin and dopamine that they are constantly craving the approval of peers and strangers alike just to get their next hit.
Another downside of this reliance on technology is that proper face-to-face contact is becoming a rarity, with people spending ever greater periods of time glued to their phones, tablets and laptops. How frequently are you left exasperated by people bumping into you in the street because they’re too busy looking at their phones instead of where they’re going? The next time you’re on public transport, have a look around at your fellow passengers and notice how many of them are staring zombie-like at handheld screens, completely cocooned in their own worlds. The dinner table chat which so many of us grew up with is increasingly becoming a thing of the past as many choose to spend their mealtimes scrolling through their emails and social media. We’re not communicating like we used to. We’re not talking and we’re not listening, and that breakdown in face-to-face communication is causing a disconnect in society. Ironically, in an era when there are more ways to communicate than ever before, the art of true communication is dying. People are becoming isolated, many don’t know or speak to their next-door neighbours and we console ourselves through immersion in an online world which, in truth, is but a pale digital facsimile of the real thing.
So what’s the answer? Put simply we need to unplug ourselves from electronic devices, ration our screen time and reconnect with the physical world and with each other before it’s too late. Of course, I’m not suggesting we dispense with technology entirely. Smart devices and social media serve many useful purposes and are not in themselves inherently bad. But we have to break our addiction to them, to learn when and how to switch off, in order to reclaim our lives and halt this downward spiral of dependency. We have to halt the relentless pursuit of external approval and learn that true happiness comes from within. There are many healthy ways to release the happiness chemicals into our body through practices such as meditation, mindfulness, forms of tapping therapy and physical exercise - practices which don't hinge upon our subjective perceptions of what other people think of us. Learning to be comfortable with who and what we are, and harbouring a greater acceptance of life generally, will foster a much deeper and more lasting sense of wellbeing than any number of Facebook “Likes” or Twitter followers could ever do. If you've read my previous blog Meditation - The Power of Now, then you'll be aware of how the practice of meditation and mindfulness can produce positive changes in the brain's structure. Happiness achieved through such practices is deep and lasting, unlike the pleasures stemming from addiction which offer only a temporary high at best, offset by a corresponding low.
Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism have long taught the importance of freeing ourselves from “attachments” - the anchors by which the ego makes us feel secure. We may be attached to our habits, our emotions, to material possessions, to pleasures, to the past, or to the status quo. It could be to alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, social media or our Smartphones. But true independence of spirit involves releasing ourselves from all these ties, which are not anchors but shackles. The path of non-attachment places value at a higher level - it finds peace within, rather than from without. This doesn't mean going without things. In fact, you'll often find that the things you've always wanted start to come to you anyway as a bi-product of finding internal peace and serenity and having a more relaxed outlook. The difference is that by being less dependent on a particular outcome you'll be less likely to experience crushing disappointment on those occasions when you don't get your way. You'll be operating from a greater level of serenity where you become an observer of your own fortunes without being emotionally entangled with them. After all, nobody can win all the time - not even those who are the very best at what they do. The most successful sportsmen are invariably those who can pick themselves up from a defeat, take positives from it and move on without wasting time wallowing in dejection, disappointment and self-pity. It's not that they don't care, but they have sufficient emotional detachment to rise above setbacks. Buddha famously said that “the root of suffering is attachment”. Or to quote from another great sage - none other than Jedi Master Yoda from Star Wars: “Attachment leads of jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose”.
There are countless natural ways to release our inner feel-good chemicals without the need to resort to substance use or external approval. There's a lot of truth in the old saying that laughter is the best medicine. Every time you smile or laugh, you release serotonin and endorphins that make you feel good, boost the immune system and help clear the body of toxins. The happier you are, the less likely it is that you’ll be prone to colds, flu and other bugs because your immune system is functioning at optimum efficiency so your resistance to infection is much higher. Studies have shown that fake laughter is just as effective as the real thing, which means you don’t have to wait for something funny to set you off - just try to act out laughter and see what happens. Body language is another hugely important factor which influences how we feel. When we’re feeling unhappy or depressed we have a tendency to slump and slouch. We literally drop our heads and the shoulders slump forward. Getting into an upright posture is one of the quickest and easiest ways to make yourself feel better. Try it now. Imagine a silver thread connecting the top of your head to the sky and form a mental picture of that thread holding your head upright. Straighten the back and move your shoulders back whilst breathing deeply. A good exercise for helping to rid yourself of attachments is to visualise your inner world as a garden. Among all the flowers are weeds of attachment. Picture yourself uprooting all these weeds - each one is a habit, a negative emotion, or a dependency - and then burn the weeds in a purifying bonfire. Vow to yourself that you will uproot each weed as soon as you notice it to keep your internal garden well-tended.
Here at Phoenix we have a strong track record of working with addiction and with helping young people in particular to break bad habits and turn their lives around. We do this by showing people how to tap into their own innate happiness and wellbeing. Using a combination of talking therapies, hypnotherapy, meditation, mindfulness, body language training and NLP techniques, we can demonstrate a myriad of completely safe and natural ways to enhance your mood, experience higher levels of consciousness and lead a happier life without dependence on external sources of stimulation. Visit our website at www.phoenixcoaching.co.uk or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org now to find out more about how we can help.