Different addictive behaviours all centre on the same inherent difficulties.
Commonalities across all addictive disorders.
There are those, and some in treatment centres, who maintain that addiction is addiction is addiction. I have not always been convinced by this, mainly because I see differences in temperament and personality among different types of addicts (i.e alcoholics often appear different to heroin addicts in my mind) but these supposed and perhaps superficial distinctions may be masking inherent similarities or commonalities in the aetiology of all addictive disorders. There seems to be commonalities in particular between alcoholics, sex addicts, gambling addicts and those with eating disorders. This commonality may also help explain “cross addiction” – the tendency to become addicted to various things, whether substances or behaviours.
I personally have become” addicted” in very short periods of time to chocolate and many other substances and behaviours, such as constantly having to watch my workaholic behaviour. By addicted I mean I have quickly suffered addictive behaviour symptoms such as excessive consumption, pathological craving, physiological withdrawals from the substance or behaviour and the gamut of negative emotions surrounding my shame and despair at these obsessive compulsive behaviours. I can’t take it or leave in relation to many things in my life. Period!
There seems to a “manic hamster on the treadmill” mechanism in me that gets ignited by my engaging in what appears to be the most innocuous behaviour. Suddenly, whatever it is, leads me to want more, more, MORE of it!
I have an addicted brain and a recovering mind.
What is this intrinsic mechanism in my brain? What trips the switch towards addictive behaviour? This is the heart of the question.
How does the brain tumble towards unbridled wanting. What leads our brain to suddenly say I NEED THIS! rather than simply wanting it?
Why does the most simple behavioural decision suddenly seem life or death, urgent, most necessary? Why a such a sudden recruitment of this emergency state? For us it is due to the limbic and subcortical areas, the “fight or flight” areas of the brain being recruited to make the most simple decision urgent. Even the most simple decisions seem to involve feeling about our very survival. As we have blogged about before in “Why a “Spiritual Solution” to a Neurobiological Disease?” survival becomes the domain of these emergency parts of the brain so we do everything like there is no tomorrow, It is everything or nothing NOW. We need these things. Our survival regions have become extreme and constantly react, not act.
Our very survival has become habitually and compulsive governed as if our brains are constantly under siege.
These commonalities centre on the fundamental role we believe emotional processing and regulation deficits have in these various types of addictive disorder. It may be these deficits that are present in all addictive behaviours and it may suggest that they are fundamental mechanisms in driving addictive behaviours forward.
In a previous blog we showed how these areas of emotional dysfunction may even be inherited in many, so it is tempting to conclude that the vulnerability, or some of the major vulnerabilities that addicts and those with addictive behaviours inherit are the impaired ability to process and regulate emotions which leads to fundamental decision making difficulties and distress-based impulslivity (as the lack of processing emotions represents as distress signals act to relief these states not guide reflective decision making) which combine to shape the rest of their lives.
The encouraging aspect is that at an affective-cognitive level it may be possible to target these deficits in children at risk via prevention programs.
It illustrates what addicts of various types have said about their illness, however, that they suffer from an emotional disease.
The solution may be prevention and/or intervention to shore up these difficulties which is primarily what various treatments do without explicitly saying so. We first need to state categorically this is what we think drives addictive behaviours and then use complementary therapeutic strategies to specifically address these vulnerabilities.
We have to relearn emotions, how to identity, label, verbalise, process and subsequently regulate our emotions so that we become less impulsively driven and ultimately make better decisions in our lives.
We have in previous blogs discussed how substance addiction seems to have emotional processing and regulation deficits at the heart of their manifestation and act as pathomechanisms in propelling these disorders to eventual chronicity.
In the next series of blogs we will be discussing whether fundamental emotional processing and regulation deficits are common to (or intrinsic to the aetiology of) other addictive disorders too).
First up, we discuss emotional (or otherwise known in research as affective) dysregulation in those with Hypersexual Disorder or more commonly know to lay persons as sexual addiction.
Hypersexual Disorder – the proposed diagnostic criteria that were given consideration for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder Fifth Edition (DSM-5) characterize hypersexual disorder (HD) (1) which is commonly known as sexual addiction.
This study (1) states that HD is a phenomenon involving repetitive and intense preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors, leading to adverse consequences and clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning(Bancroft, 2008; Kafka, 2010; Kaplan & Krueger, 2010; Marshall & Briken, 2010; Reid, Garos, & Fong, 2012).
Patients seeking help for HD typically experience multiple unsuccessful attempts to control or diminish the amount of time spent engaging in sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors in response to dysphoric mood states or stressful life events (Kafka, 2010).
Personality characteristics such as proneness to boredom (Chaney
The importance of finding effective treatments for HD cannot be underestimated given the gravity of its consequences (Reid, Garos, et al., 2012): Hypersexual patients are at increased risk for loss of employment, legal problems, social isolation, higher rates of divorce (Reid & Woolley, 2006; Reid, Carpenter, Draper, & Manning, 2010; Zapf, Greiner, & Carroll, 2008), and sexually transmitted infections (Coleman et al., 2010; Dodge, Reece, Cole, & Sandfort, 2004; Rinehart & McCabe, 1997, 1998).
This study found (1) significant associations between unpleasant emotions, impulsivity, stress proneness, and hypersexuality replicating findings
Another study (2) looked at investigating alexithymia, emotional instability, and vulnerability to stress proneness among individual seeking help for hypersexual behavior. Findings (2) provide evidence for the hypothesis thatindividuals who manifest symptoms of hypersexual behavior are more likely to experience deficits in affect regulation and negative affect (including
An increasing number of individuals are seeking help for hypersexual behavior related to a constellation of symptoms that reflect difficulties in regulating sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
This study’s (2) conceptualization of this phenomenon keys onbehavior dysregulation as manifest through exaggerated frequency and focus on sexual behavior (from sexual activity with partners, to use of pornography, sexual fantasy, or other erotic stimuli, to excessive masturbation).
Hypersexual behavior may include a sense of being out of control or a history of failed attempts at increased control, and it encompasses elements common to other psychiatric dysfunctions, such as impaired functioning in aspects of daily living, subjective distress, and deficits in coping strategies for addressing uncomfortable affective experiences (e.g., anxiety reduction), usually because of over reliance on sexual behavior as a means of affective regulation and relief. Many patients presenting with hypersexual behavior also report incongruence between their values and beliefs and their sexual behavior.
This study, used the definition of Reid and Woolley (2006) was used
“It may be that such persons possess deficits in affective regulation similar to those encompassed by the constructs of alexithymia and neuroticism. . It
Adams and Robinson (2001), as well as others (e.g., Schwartz & Masters,
The power of sexual experience to shield one from negative emotions, then, probably arises from sexual arousal’s inherent ability to create intense focus on the competing state of pleasurable arousal, as well as the release of tension associated with orgasm. Furthermore, some individuals may find that fantasizing about sexual activity provides a greater distraction than partnered activity because it encourages—and maybe even requires— disconnect from relationships with their inherent problems, challenges, and complexities.
One plausible way to understand hypersexuality is seeing behaviors associated with reward, distraction, or soothing—such as overeating, exaggerated focus on somatic complaints, substance abuse, or hypersexuality—as being particularly likely in those for whom emotional distancing has high priority. This need for emotional distance can arise from increased stress proneness, negative affective states, emotional pain associated with unresolved trauma, or the inability to develop and form secure attachment bonds.
Our clinical impressions of patients displaying hypersexuality, as defined above, are consistent with those of other researchers who have suggested that alexithymic individuals seek tension reduction from uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions (Keltikangas-Jarvinen, 1982; Kroner & Forth,
Research supports some associations between alexithymia and stress. For instance, high, as compared to low, alexithymic individuals show different cardiovascular response to stress (e.g., Linden, Lenz, & Stossel, 1996).
The findings support our hypothesis that alexithymia, emotional instability,
These findings are consistent with our theoretical conceptualization of
Many of the subjects in the present study displayed emotional deficits and a paucity of emotional awareness. Queries about feelings in therapy would often elicit a response such as “I don’t know” or “I’m not feeling anything.” – otherwise know as emotional differentiation and discussed recently in another blog.
Our clinical impressions of hypersexual patients suggest that many of
The function of sexual activity in these instances is stress reduction and escape from or avoidance of uncomfortable and unpleasant affective experiences attributable to difficulties in their interpersonal relationships and other challenges in daily living.
1. Reid, R. C., Bramen, J. E., Anderson, A., & Cohen, M. S. (2014). Mindfulness, emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, and stress proneness among hypersexual patients. Journal of clinical psychology, 70(4), 313-321.
2. Reid, R. C., Carpenter, B. N., Spackman, M., & Willes, D. L. (2008). Alexithymia, emotional instability, and vulnerability to stress proneness in patients seeking help for hypersexual behavior. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 34(2), 133-149.