Friday, September 25, 2015

Is Anxiety an Addiction?

As someone who has been whipsawed by anxiety for many years I am always attracted to articles that attempt to address or explain that nastiest of feelings. It’s got many synonyms—fear, nervousness, tummy-ache, stage fright and clinical anxiety. I know every variation of
the theme.

So when I saw the article called “Anxiety Through the Lens of Addiction” by Suzanne Jesse in the recent Renew Magazine I tore it out and started in.

Jesse is a clinician specializing in addiction and in this article she uses the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) which is the Bible of diagnosis which also determines who gets paid for treatment. She shows how the addictions we are most familiar with: alcoholism and drug addiction are diagnosed via the DSM and then she lays the characteristic of anxiety/anxiety disorders next to those same criteria, and voila! there is an addiction pattern with anxiety.

Jesse writes: “I was curious about the addictive nature of the underlying problem with anxiety: thoughts.” 

What felt so familiar to me was how her own story led her to looking at her thinking and how she found her thinking had become addictive. She says that she knew that her anxiety originated with her, “chaotic and unstable traumatic childhood” but she wanted to know exactly how those experiences eventually resulted in debilitating anxiety. 

And her light bulb moment came from reading “Love, Medicine, and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel who said, “Thoughts are chemical.” Walter Cannon, who described the fight-or-flight response, also confirmed that thoughts lead the body to release chemicals that create and sustain anxiety.

Jesse goes on to show that the chemical nature of thoughts leads to a chemical addiction. She turns back to the DSM and answers each criteria question for substance abuse disorder but replaces “the substance” with “engaging in negative thought” and she shows that folks with anxiety get pretty high scores for an addictive disorder.

This is also why, though we know this, it’s hard to shake. If we could simply, “Change your thinking” (like it says on the many reminder post-its I have on my desk, dashboard and daily planner) we would do it, right?

But it is, in fact, not just a handy metaphor to say that negative thinking is like using heroin, it is like using heroin. We think, and think and think our fear and worry thoughts continually shooting ourselves full of fear, flooding the body with addictive chemicals. Negative thinking is addictive, and given the impact of chronic stress (even self induced) it can also be physically devastating. 

So in long-term recovery—while we may not have used an “external chemical” for many years--we may still be shooting up awful and addictive chemicals on a daily basis.

You know the saying—and it’s more true than ever: “I came for my drinking but stayed for my thinking.” Thirty years later, my own thoughts may be the toughest addiction I will ever face.

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