Blog: Can Addictive Thoughts be Useful?

Can Addictive Thoughts be Useful?
Acknowledging Alcohol Awareness Month
By Lance Dodes, M.D.
Can addictive thoughts be useful? Ask anyone on the street whether addictive thoughts are useful and they will think you must be crazy. After all, that sounds like asking about whether having cancer can be useful. "Who would want addictive thoughts?" they might ask, while carefully backing away from you. The notion that there is value in these unwanted thoughts does seem peculiar.
What are addictive thoughts?:
Anyone who suffers with an addiction has addictive thoughts. The important question is not whether you want them, but what to do with them when they occur. Most people know intuitively that addictive thoughts are the first step on the road to addictive behavior. So they try to get as far away from them as possible. Some try to argue themselves out of them. Others try to distract themselves by thinking of something else, or plunging into an activity that will force them to focus elsewhere. Sometimes, folks treat the thought as though it is a challenge that has to be defeated by willpower. None of these strategies really work. You can't run from addictive thoughts for long, or distract yourself for long, and certainly you cannot defeat them by willpower­­ for a simple reason. They are an important part of you; not an enemy to avoid or defeat.
Addictive thoughts have meaning:
Like any other thought or action, addictive thoughts arise from your emotional life and have an important personal meaning and purpose. Once people grasp this fact it becomes possible to do something new. Instead of running from addictive thoughts or fighting with them, they can stay with them and get to know them.
If addictive thoughts have meaning and purpose it's possible to learn what these are. And if the emotional factors behind addictive thoughts become known, the entire situation is reversed.
Instead of addiction being a mysterious, uncontrollable power in your life, you can become the controller of the addiction. You can find out not just why these thoughts occur, but why they occur when they do. Most importantly, you can use that knowledge to anticipate when you will be faced with a much more serious problem: an overwhelming addictive urge.
What to do with addictive thoughts:
Whenever the thought of engaging in addictive behavior comes to mind, take a moment to look at what just happened. This could be what somebody else said, or did, or something that you said or did, or some thought that just came to mind.  Perhaps you were thinking about the work you have to do later that day, or the fight you had with your sister, or the paper you have to write by Tuesday. It could be the reaction of your friend when you told him that you got a promotion, or your anxiety about calling an attractive person for a date. The common element in all these situations will be that they all made you feel trapped, overwhelmed, or helpless.
The first time you try this approach, it may not be clear what led to the addictive thought. But if you keep looking backward whenever you have those thoughts you will inevitably discover a pattern. Why? Because addictive thoughts are never random. Whatever issues drive them are specific to each individual and occur repeatedly. So, with enough experiences, the same issues will eventually stand out. You will discover, for example, that addictive thoughts are always precipitated by the threatened loss of a friend, or by fear of standing up for yourself, or by anxiety about how you will be perceived by a person attractive to you. It will be something that you will recognize as an area of your life that has always been sensitive for you.
At this point, you can look ahead to when this central set of issues will next arise, which will enable you to know in advance when you will be at high risk of feeling your addictive urge and engaging in your addiction. Armed with this advance knowledge, you will have many ways to deal with it. For many examples of this, see my book, Breaking Addiction: A 7­ Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction.
By looking at addictive thoughts as clues to understanding the emotions that fuel your addiction, they change from frightening and mysterious unwanted messages to opportunities for empowerment.
[A version of this article appeared in the online site Pro Talk.]
Lance Dodes, M.D. is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (retired), Training and Supervising Analyst Emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and Faculty member of the New Center for Psychoanalysis (Los Angeles). He has been honored by the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School for "Distinguished Contribution" to the study and treatment of addictive behavior, and has been elected a Distinguished Fellow of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.