Breaking Bread, Breaking a Sweat, and Breaking Addiction
My wife and I were on a hike with some friends recently. I hadn’t been on that hike since I was a child. All I had remembered of it was that the final destination was designated by a waterfall. The hike itself was beautiful, lush with indigenous plant species and cactus. Various water features meandered along and away from the trail. As we were walking along the trail, admiring the beauty of the surrounding landscape, we were simultaneously chatting with one another about life, our weeks, and our upcoming plans.
After the hike we all went out for breakfast burritos at a local hole-in-the-wall, all the while continuing to share and bear one another's joys and hardships. As my wife and I said our goodby-for-nows and departed from our friends we chatted about how nice of a time we had with them.
Prior to this morning hike and breakfast burritos with friends, I had recently finished basic training for EMDR. For those who don’t know, EMDR is based out of the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. In a nutshell, the AIP model, as it relates to EMDR, suggests that the “bi-lateral stimulation” in EMDR therapy characterized by eye-movements, tapping, or “butterfly hug”, when paired with the processing of events in a secure environment, facilitates the adaptive processing and storage of information in your brain.
This process is helpful when memories, relationships, or experiences are maladaptively stored in the brain in such a way that causes distress. For instance, a war veteran might have the memory of loud sounds from war maladaptively stored in their memory systems. This maladaptive storage of memory causes them to become overly angry or fearful whenever they hear a loud noise even when they are in an environment that is not actually threatening to them, such as watching a movie in the safety of their own home. The bi-lateral stimulation paired with the security of a strong therapeutic relationship as these maladaptive memories are being processed helps to organize the information surrounding the memories of war in a more adaptive way. This adaptive memory storage loosens the grips the distressing memories have on the war veteran today, and they are able to enjoy movies and other environments with loud noises without those environments triggering memories which take them back to the battle field.
So how does addiction tie in to all of this? In short, when memories, relationships and experiences are stored maladaptively, they tend to create what feels like chronic distress. Since your brain wants to move toward healing, it is easy to mistake the escape and relief experienced through the maladaptive consumption of porn, sex, or substances with adaptive healing. This pseudo-healing experienced through the relief provided through porn, sex, and substances is part of what facilitates addiction to these things. It only makes sense that when the chronic experiences of distress caused by maladaptively stored memories is decreased through the adaptive processing and storage of these memories one would feel less of a need to manage their distress with addictive behaviors. The vehicle of adaptive processing and storage of memories in this case would be the bi-lateral stimulation and safe, secure therapeutic relationship provided through the EMDR process.
Now I’d like to connect all of these dots. In order to do so, it is important to understand that bi-lateral stimulation is not confined to EMDR therapy, and safe, secure relationships are not confined to your relationship with a Therapist. Bi-lateral stimulation is walking, hiking, eating, gardening, exercising, and any other form of activity that activates your brain’s bi-lateral functioning. In kind, safety and security can be found in the context of a loving partner, a parent, or a friend.
Now that we have a bit of context and understand surrounding bi-lateral stimulation and adaptive information processing, let’s go back to the morning hike and breakfast burritos with friends. Our movement through hiking and eating with one another provided bi-lateral stimulation, our friendship provided the safe, secure relationship, and our sharing and hearing one another’s thoughts and experiences provided the information processing. As a result, we all left feeling known, validated, and emotionally regulated.
Breaking bread, and breaking a sweat in the context of a safe, secure community provides opportunity to connect with and regulate emotion in adaptive ways. This adaptive regulation of emotion through activity in community decreases the felt need to regulate emotion through addictive behaviors. I know these concepts don’t capture the entire picture for everyone as it relates to addictive tendencies. However I do hope these concepts shed light on the value of building a safe, secure community in which we all can break bread with one another, break a sweat with one another, and in doing so, help provide an environment in which we can break addiction.