by Joshua Hoe
The most popular series on Television is The Walking Dead.
Every year it seems like at least ten new movies about zombies hit the theaters.
The main feature of zombies is that they are all drive, no intellect just desire. They work as if on auto-pilot.
I have always secretly suspected that one of the real reasons we are drawn to zombie movies is because so many of us are addicts.
I know I often felt more like a zombie than a person in my acting out cycles before I found recovery.
Did My Brain Make Me Into The Walking Dead?
As I understand it, there are three stories of addiction right now:
1) Addiction is a moral failing – addicts are really spoiled kids who never face consequences for their actions. If only they were made to face the consequences of their actions they would “straighten up and fly right.” Tough Love solves addiction.
2) Addiction is a disease – neurological patterns form between emotional triggers and the need for behavioral or substance-based dopamine release. These patterns become deeper and deeper and become natural to the addict.
3) Addiction is not really a disease but kind of acts like one – the pattern does develop, and does become habitual, but can be reversed because brain patterns are set and change all the time.
Science is having a debate between answers number 2 and number 3 – and for our purposes this is really an academic distinction that has little effect on our progress. It is nice to know that we can “change the pattern” over time, but we have to recover either way.
Our brains, as a general rule, try to remove obstacles in completing habitual behaviors because by smoothing those paths our brains free up space for us to concentrate on other things.
Over time these paths become deeper and more automatic.
When we are engaging in habitual behaviors it can feel like we don’t even know hat is happening, like we have been removed from the time in between cause (trigger) and effect (acting out).
In those areas, we become like zombies, mindlessly moving toward our desired behavior or substance.
I know when I was still acting out, I often wondered how I would be 100% convinced that I did not want to act out but mere minutes later I would have acted out.
I was an addict zombie.
So the brain has another trick, when it confronts something that creates stress, it tries to find a path to soothing that stress.
So, when I was stressed about acting out (when I was certain I didn’t want to act out) my brain would start to try to make sense of it all so that I could calm down.
And my zombie justification cycle would start.
Over time, the smoothness between the trigger and acting out and between the acting out and justifications gets more and more natural.
Did I mention that I was an addict zombie.
This is not to suggest that I wasn’t responsible for my actions as much as to suggest why it gets progressively harder to slow down the process and increasingly easy to justify bad behaviors.
Tricking Your Zombie Brain
Probably the biggest weakness of zombies is that they are on auto-pilot. They are not very clever or strategic.
In addiction circles, we always attribute a great deal of cleverness to our “addict.” I am not entirely sure this is warranted, my “addict” is really persistent – and capable of deploying massive emotional power – but not really very clever IMHO.
When I am triggered, I will feel an urge to act out for sure.
My usual go-to response is to practice mindfulness meditation and just watch the urge until it dissipates.
But, Sometimes, even after all this time, an urge is so strong it leaves me shocked and surprised and meditation is not enough.
When I feel these powerful urges, I turn to what I call my “positive substitution behaviors.”
Positive substitution behaviors are alternative behaviors that I feel ethically comfortable with, that provide an emotional benefit, and that are not related (in any way) to acting out.
* I go work out (endorphin reward response)
* I call my sponsor (emotional reward response from social connection)
* I go to a meeting (same)
* I hang out with friends (same)
If you don’t have a list of substitution behaviors, start trying to put one together for yourself.
By substituting you start to create alternatives for your brain – different habit patterns that complicate the brains smoothing of the path between trigger and response.
You basically trick the brain by using a different reward in response to your trigger.
By breaking in and complicating this process, with practice your brain will start to normalize these new patterns between trigger and positive (instead of negative) substitution behaviors.
In other words, it gets easier.
I have no idea if this means I will eventually stop having the urges altogether, I doubt it. But I do know that I start to feel more able to use tools of recovery between the urge and the acting out.
Hopefully, over time, this will happen for you as well!
How do you slow down your brains smoothing out process between trigger and acting out? What tools work for you? I would love to hear your stories, leave a comment!