Combating Addictive Behaviour Chinese Medicine Style

Hugh Hayward - Chinese Medicine Practitioner

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I have never met a soul who didn’t manifest addictive behaviour in one form or another at varying degrees throughout their life. It is built into our neurology. The brain is efficient in laying out pathways to satisfy the pleasure centres which in turn often can lead to a habitual existence. 

Everyone of us are habitual beings. If something works and feels good we take the most efficient route or the path of least resistance, and then we repeat it the next day.

The common mistake we addicts make is swapping out our addictions for the next, under the guise that they are benefiting us or our livelihood. This excuses a self perpetual cycle of addiction. Each new high waring thin on our health and never quite satisfying that ultimate sensation of craving.

Anything in excess creates pain and disharmony within the body and anything which drives us beyond this innate sensibility is an addiction.

Whether or not you are addicted to drugs or alcohol, coffee or junk food, facebook, Netflix, dating sites or sex, saving X amount of dollars or working too hard, exercising until you vomit or sleeping the day away, you are reinforcing cycles of addiction and it is always unsustainable. 

The truth in my mind is that this is a natural part of our survival. No one I know is beyond addiction. We live according to varying degrees on a scale between hedonism and abstinence. It is an important mechanism of the brain that we are able to recognise what gives us satisfaction and seek this out, however, our constant and easy access to pleasure allows no room for balance. 

It is an extremely difficult thing to ignore our instinctual urges when around every avenue there is an outlet for pleasure in unlimited amounts. The resulting behaviour is a tendency to nourish this cycle of addiction to a point of relative satisfaction, and then to saturation or boredom, and then the inevitable dissatisfaction and withdrawal which opens the way for a new cycle.

A problem that most addicts have is remission. I think the reason for this is the simple fact that they are treating an expression of their addiction rather than the addiction itself. If a heroine addict goes into rehab for 3 weeks and survives the withdrawal, their body will have at least been cleared of toxins although they will still leave the clinic as an addict. 

Recognising that we have the capacity to create addiction in any form and learning to achieve balance is the best tool for true rehabilitation. 

To metaphorise addiction in a Chinese medicine fashion, it can be viewed as an open flame within the body. The flame is an innate part of our biological mechanism, however with the wrong sort of fuel, it can burn at an excess and can ultimately damage the vessel. In my interpretation, the sensation of craving is the feeling of a bright flame slowly withering. The body naturally seeks more external fuel sources to keep the fire alight. The continued consumption of high energy foods (such as processed sugars) can activate this dopamine response in someone who experiences eating problems. The body will always tend towards the higher energy for the least amount of exertion. 

Now in knowing that addiction is a flame and that heat sources or fuel sources will keep the fire lit, learning to balance the substances and activities that become out of check can be useful to reconnect with your senses and listen to your body. High energy foods begin to taste too rich when not needed and stimulants like caffeine send you into overdrive. Maintaining a sustainable fuel consumption will keep that flame burning more steadily for longer and will keep you healthy and balanced. 

From my own experience, other examples of fuels which can activate this addictive cycle when used in excess (apart from the obvious like drugs and alcohol) include: adrenaline rushes, emotional drama, exercise, work (or just being busy), computers, TV, smart phones and video games, and some stimulating foods like processed sugar, chilli, chocolate, coffee and MSG.

Before we even begin treatment with acupuncture, tui na or chi nei tsang, we need to understand our own addictions and start to become aware of the impact that they have on our mood and our bodies.