Help. Hope. Healing.

Interrupting Destructive Mind-Shifts

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.


Sex Addiction Recovery Tips from Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

Interrupting Destructive Mind-Shifts

When I met Arnold, he had been working for years to overcome his compulsive sexual behavior. There had been periods of progress. Arnold would repent, get his life back on track and then abstain from addictive behavior for a period of time. Notwithstanding these temporary successes, however, Arnold had always eventually relapsed back to his old ways. Each time he did, it seemed that the severity of his compulsive behavior escalated. During our first session together, Arnold admitted the full extent of his addiction, tearfully confessing the new lows to which he had sunk in recent months.

Using some of the strategies explored in the other recovery tips, Arnold exerted anew his efforts to abstain from all compulsive sexual behavior. Things went well for the first couple of weeks. However, when he arrived for our fourth session, I could see that he was discouraged.

“For the first part of the week, I was surrendering all of my burdens to the Lord like we’ve been talking about,” he recalled. “Not just sexual temptations, but stresses at work and everything. It was great.”

“However,” he quickly added, “I’m learning that sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes when I’m tense and something’s bugging me, I can’t seem to shake it.” Arnold described a stressful experience he had gone through the previous Friday at work: “I trying to get a newsletter out to our customers by the end of the week, and I couldn’t get the computer program I was using to work the way it’s supposed to. It was a huge frustration. The afternoon was a disaster. I didn’t sleep well Friday night. I was still feeling wound up and out of sorts on Saturday, so I got back on the Internet. Sunday I told my wife I was going to go into the office to get some work done, and I went looking for sex instead.”

Arnold had described his descent back into the addictive cycle, but his account had been very cursory. I asked him to go back and describe how he was feeling from Friday afternoon when his frustration level rose to Saturday morning when he finally gave in to temptation. “I experienced an aggravation that was completely unresponsive to the tools and techniques we’ve been talking about,” he recounted. “It was such an intense pressure, like I’ve just gotta do something to get rid of it. I felt agitated. It was so hard. I was so stirred up inside. At first I was afraid I would explode, and then I was afraid I might not! The worst thing imaginable at that time would have been to just stay in that state of intense distress without any source of release or relief. I knew that I should continue to sit through the distress and keep turning it over to the Lord like we’ve been talking about, but the thought of not running away was terrifying. There was this undercurrent of, ‘I gotta get out of this, I gotta get out of this, I gotta get out of this . . .’ that pounded away at me until I finally acted out.

I then asked Arnold to tell me about the shift that occurred once he started searching for pornography on the Internet. “It felt like life was simple again,” he responded. “It was like the mental haze cleared and I felt a sense of ease that had been missing for the previous 24 hours. Every fiber of my being was focused on, ‘What can I find now? What’s this next picture going to be?’ There was a singularity of purpose that was, in and of itself, a relief.”

I have heard similar descriptions from other clients. One explained it this way: “In the midst of everyday living, when life feels messy and there’s ambiguity about what direction I should go, when I can’t seem to keep on top of the things I’m responsible for and I can’t seem to bring myself to make the decisions or take the actions that will make things better–that is when sexual temptation is particularly compelling. As soon as I initiate the pursuit of sexual gratification, a sense of clarity and vitality is restored. Suddenly I have a clear-cut goal and some distinct steps for getting there. In a perverted sort of way,” he confessed, “when I’m in the midst of it I feel like I’m accomplishing something. Then of course, in the end I’m rewarded by a reliable and predictable payoff. Sure, I end up feeling guilty about what I’ve done and a sense of emptiness when it’s over, but it’s not the low-energy, directionless sort of depression I was experiencing before I acted out.”

Descriptions like those above, of turmoil and stress and intense pressure–and then of immense relief provided by a compulsive behavior, are red flags to me that the individual’s neurological survival response has been incorporated into and corrupted by their addiction. Emotional arousal and physical stress trigger our survival response, and the core of the brain attempts to insure survival by initiating the repetition of well-practiced autopilot programs. Although this process is usually quite adaptive and healthy, the results can be disastrous when our most ingrained habits are destructive. In this tip, we will explore just how it is that addiction hijacks our survival system. We will then consider ways in which we can manage our arousal and stress in order to more effectively guard against relapse.

The Intoxication Before the Act

Most addictive behavior patterns give us a rush or a high, have a calming or soothing influence, leave us with a heightened clarity of thought, or provide some other compelling after-effect. Because of their powerful effects, it is typically assumed that it is what we experience after we repeat these habits that keeps us coming back for more.

However, the shifts in our state of mind that occur before our habitual behavior contribute at least as much to our relapses, and yet are not nearly as well understood. These shifts occur before we begin pursuing our habit, placing us in the state of mind in which habits usually labeled “bad” suddenly make sense. This shift can make smoking a cigarette seem like an elegantly simple solution to a complex and distressing life problem, and can make infidelity seem like a trivial matter. I know because I’ve observed this kind of breakdown of logic in action, seen the effects of these mental shifts, and talked with amazed and befuddled “victims” after this kind of mental deterioration has wreaked havoc.

We focus so much on the after-effects of our bad habits, on “the intoxication after the act,” so to speak. What we are considering now might be called the “intoxication before the act.” It precedes any behavior to which we compulsively return despite real effort. This intoxication that immediately precedes our pursuit of a self-destructive behavior is just as real as the intoxication that comes after ingesting a mood-altering chemical. What is essentially a cocktail of brain chemicals bathes the brain, shifting our priorities, perspective, and even our personality. In this altered state of mind, we may pass a roadside sobriety test, but we are “operating under the influence” nonetheless.

The effects of this “intoxication before the act” are dramatic and predictable, once we know what to look for. We experience a sort of tunnel vision that blinds us to long-term goals and more complicated needs and wishes. Typically, in this state of “intoxication” we select behavior based on immediate effect. Our values disappears into the glove box and our habitual routines become our road map. Emotions and bodily needs direct our behavior.

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo shows, in a very poetic way, how intense emotion and bodily drives can eclipse rational thought as he describes Marius and Cosette in love:

Strange to say, in the sort of symphony which Marius had lived since he had been in the habit of seeing Cosette, the past, even the most recent past, had become . . . confused and distant to him. . . . In the evening he did not even know that there had been a morning, what he had done, where he had breakfasted, nor who had spoken to him; he had songs in his ears which rendered him deaf to every other thought; he only existed at the hours when he saw Cosette. Then, as he was in heaven, it was quite natural that he should forget earth. Both bore languidly the indefinable burden of immaterial pleasures. Thus lived these somnambulists who are called lovers. . . . 

Loving almost takes the place of thinking. Love is an ardent forgetfulness of all the rest. Then ask logic of passion if you will. There is no more absolute logical sequence in the human heart than there is a perfect geometrical figure in the celestial mechanism. For Cosette and Marius nothing existed except Marius and Cosette. The universe around them had fallen into a hole. They lived in a golden minute. There was nothing before them, nothing behind. It hardly occurred to Marius that Cosette had a father. His brain was dazzled and obliterated. Of what did these lovers talk then? We have seen, of the flowers, and the swallows, the setting sun and the rising moon, and all sorts of important things. They had told each other everything except everything. The everything of lovers is nothing. . . . They were two, and they adored each other, and beyond that there was nothing. Nothing else existed. It is probable that this vanishing of hell in our rear is inherent to the arrival of paradise. Have we beheld demons? Are there any? Have we trembled? Have we suffered? We no longer know. A rosy cloud hangs over it.

As we explore the fading of rational thought and the foreshortening of our time perspective, we are reminded of the distinctions between the spirit and the flesh and the corresponding divisions within the human nervous system: the cortex and the brain core.

The cerebral cortex, and particularly the frontal cortex, that part of the brain just behind our foreheads, is the region of brain tissue that has long been thought of as “command central.” It is the area of the brain capable of making moral judgments and planning for the future. It can sort through complicated problems, evaluate potential solutions, and then choose to implement the best one.

As it turns out, however, brain scientists are learning that the frontal cortex operates in some ways more like a substation. There are actually other areas of the brain that could lay a claim to the title “command central” in their own right. The limbic system in the core of the brain is command central when it comes to emotions. The hypothalamus is command central when it comes to physiological processes like hunger, thirst, and sexuality. When it comes to decision-making, the prefrontal center for values and logic is not the only brain component that gets a vote. All of the substations—the limbic system and hypothalamus from the core of the brain as well as the prefrontal cortex from the outer layer of the brain—send their input along pathways that eventually reach the motor cortex, which is responsible for orchestrating the specific patterns of action once the choice to act has been made. Prior to their arrival at the motor cortex, the pathways from the brain core and the pathway from the prefrontal area converge at a structure called the nucleus accumbens. Hardly command central, this inauspicious clump of brain tissue is more like a telegraph relay substation. And yet it is in this location that incoming input from the other areas is sorted and prioritized. In order for us to act decisively, the motor cortex must receive a clear-cut signal to initiate one behavior sequence or another. It is the task of the nucleus accumbens to sort incoming input for the most salient message so that it can be sent along with a minimum of noise. Then, this single message is sent along, while other input is not.

Perhaps this is how the core of the brain, which process all of our passions and bodily drives, has the power to override and shut down the cortex’s ability to process information and direct behavior in a more rational and logical way. When our minds shift to this “lower gear” we are now discussing, we can only think effectively about the goal our survival-oriented system has identified as “top priority.” We lapse into a sort of near-sightedness, a tunnel vision, a one-track mindedness. Having shifted our minds into this lower gear, it is as though we no longer “have the cogs for” more calm and rational thinking for the time being.

In sum, when control shifts from our cortex to our brain core, we experience a distinct change of priorities. Instead of our lofty goals and heady objectives, we are drawn toward goals that are more basic, emotion-driven, and body-centered. Furthermore, the steps that must be taken to meeting these goals typically do not depend on conscious choices and complex decision-making, but simply repeating well-practiced routines that will bring about predictable results.

When the Shift is Adaptive

Fortunately, the diversion of behavioral control from conscious choice to mindless repetition of habit is usually adaptive. Imagine that you are in the middle of an important discussion about family finances with your spouse. Suddenly, you smell something burning. Like it or not, your concern over what happened to the $50 that was unaccounted for last month will evaporate immediately. An automatic program or set of responses designed to aid our security and survival kicks in, and more lofty and complicated thought processes about less urgent problems are shut down.

By shifting gears in this way, the brain takes care of many necessary activities for us with autopilot programs so that we don’t have to use our attention to carry them out. Because we have this miraculous ability as humans, many needs can be identified and solved with very little participation of our conscious minds. When we are tired, we really don’t want to consider all of the clothing items we might wear to bed, all of the different places in the house where we could choose to sleep, or the various positions in which we could lay. We have no need for creativity or logic in such moments; what we need is to repeat familiar rituals in familiar places so that we end up comfortably prepared to spend the night. Similarly, we want tried and true sources of food when we are hungry. If we are under attack, we want to be able to defend ourselves. Most of the time, the most effective way to meet these straightforward survival goals is to repeat, with very little delay or deliberation, the method we have practiced the most. Remember that it is the core of the brain that specializes in this kind of quick initiation of highly patterned behavior.

Imagine that NASA came out with a new state-of-the-art spacecraft with an on-board computer that is capable of almost every function necessary during a space voyage. For example the flight plan is programmed into the craft so that it is able to run on autopilot. Most of its other functions could also be completed without participation on the part of the crew. The more sophisticated tasks the computer is designed to complete include gathering samples of material and testing them, taking pictures, and measuring its own fuel efficiency. Because only a limited amount of weight could be taken on the flight, engineers consolidated all of the controls of the ship into one computer. Therefore, the same machine which is responsible for the highest functions and tasks is also designed to manage the most mundane. Occasionally therefore, throughout the flight and even in the middle of ground-breaking scientific experiments, progress on more sophisticated tasks would stall as the computer “went on a different track” temporarily to monitor the oxygen levels, adjust the temperature within the craft, or recharge the generator that ran the life support functions.

In many ways, our brains operate like that kind of computer. Consider how the process operates in the following case: At 10:00 a.m., pumped up from a pep talk at a sales meeting, Alexander, a water softener salesman, decides he will work straight through lunch and keep going right up until 5:00 today. He is excited to try out a new door approach. Besides, today is the last day of the pay period and he is only three sales away from a bonus. Forty-five minutes later, Alexander has made his first sale. Later in the day, at 1:45, he changes his mind about lunch and decides to eat. At 3:30 he makes another sale, and then another again at 4:15. He arrives home feeling satisfied—and tired, but not exhausted.

Did Alexander really “decide” to eat? What was the process by which he “changed his mind”? Let us take a closer look at the sequence of events between Noon and 2:30. He is in the habit of eating lunch, and by Noon he had the urge to eat. However, he turned his thoughts back to his sales goal and kept working. Pangs of hunger eventually made their way into his consciousness, but he redirected his attention again. His stomach continued to gurgle, but he did not notice it. By about 1:30, however, his enthusiasm for work was waning. Although he was not aware of it, he sighed every few minutes. The thought occurred to him that no one else in this neighborhood was likely to make a purchase, and with a vague sense of discouragement he returned to his car. Feeling the need to escape for a while, he decided to drive around for a few minutes. On his leisurely drive, he spotted a fast food restaurant and sensed what a relief it would be to grab a quick bite after all. He pulled in and ordered a meal. After he had eaten and listened to a few calls on radio talk show, he drove to another residential area and went back to work.

The “decision” to take a break and eat was apparently a good one, but not much reasoning or conscious consideration went into it. It was a course of action guided by—or made “under the influence” of—his emotions and his hunger. Looking back we can say that a mild sense of despair bailed him out of a less advisable course of action (not eating at all).

Within his nervous system, Alexander’s frontal cortex, deprived of the amount of glucose it usually runs on, lost its capacity for efficient thought. On the other hand, the effective functioning of his hypothalamus, that mechanism in the core of the brain that registers hunger and triggers food-seeking behavior, was initiated by the same lack of nutrients that interfered with the functioning of the cortex. The results ended up being helpful and adaptive for Alexander: Goal-directed behavior that was geared toward long-term objectives was interrupted briefly to take care of more pressing immediate needs. His mind’s work was interrupted by instructions from his body, which, when followed, enabled his mind to return to its optimal level of functioning.

How the Survival System Gets Hijacked

As adaptive as it usually is, the process of shifting into a lower mental gear and mindlessly repeating auto-pilot behavioral programs can also have destructive and even disastrous effects. When it goes awry, this process, which is usually a life-preserver, can also become a life-destroyer. The very inflexibility which makes the system effective also shields it from being interrupted or modified in beneficial ways.

Addictions provide perhaps the most obvious illustrations of the destructive potential of habits. However, we can deepen our understanding of the principles involved by first considering a couple of examples from outside the realm of addiction of our usually adaptive habit system becoming destructive.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi retells the following story, which he heard from a colleague he refers to as “G,” who had witnessed it firsthand:

During the Korean War, G.’s unit was involved in routine parachute training. One day, as the group was preparing for a drop, it was discovered that there were not enough regular parachutes to go around, and one of the right-handed men was forced to take a left-handed chute. “It is the same as the others,” the ordnance sergeant assured him, “but the rip cord hangs on the left side of the harness. You can release the chute with either hand, but it is easier to do it with the left.” The team boarded the plane, went up to eight thousand feet, and over the target area one after the other they jumped out. Everything went well, except for one of the men: his parachute never opened, and he fell straight to his death on the desert below.
G. was part of the investigating team sent to determine why the chute didn’t open. The dead soldier was the one who had been given the left-handed release latch. The uniform on the right side of his chest, where the rip cord for a regular parachute would have been, had been completely torn off; even the flesh of his chest had been gouged out in long gashes by his bloody right hand. A few inches to the left was the actual rip cord, apparently untouched. There had been nothing wrong with the parachute. The problem had been that, while falling through that awful eternity, the man had become fixated on the idea that to open the chute he had to find the release in the accustomed place. His fear was so intense that it blinded him to the fact that safety was literally at his fingertips (Flow, p. 206).

While this story is gruesome, it offers undeniable evidence: even the threat of immediate death is not always sufficient to deter us from a deeply-ingrained habit. In the heat of the moment, we sometimes act in ways that are odds with our best intentions.

When things got intense for the soldier, a familiar response sequence was triggered. This sequence had been repeated countless times before, to the point that it had become second-nature for him. It was the very response that would usually have insured his survival, but in this instance it endangered his safety and well-being. Once the sequence was triggered, however, it seemed to take on a life of its own, carrying through to completion in spite of a previous conscious decision to act otherwise.

In several key ways, the process of returning to familiar habits despite other intentions operates in our lives as it did for the paratrooper. We find our habits most compelling in times of intense stress or emotional arousal. These habits have developed through repetition–they have been learned and then over-learned. While the habits themselves might be destructive, they operate in the same way and are products of the same mechanisms of the nervous system as those habits that guarantee our survival, security, and social inclusion. And finally, they operate as behavior chains that, once initiated, are difficult to break part way through.

We see therefore, that although the parachuter’s experience was extraordinary, the principles it illustrates are commonplace. While the process typically occurs in less dramatic ways in our lives, the disconnection between our intentions and actions can be equally baffling and in the long run just as problematic as it was for the soldier.

Another case in point: After invasive stomach surgery, some patients are required to go 24 hours without water or food. Of course, when they are sitting in the post-op briefing with their surgeon, they find it easy to understand that stitched tissue must remain dry for a time in order to give their internal wounds time to begin healing. They readily agree not to drink anything, particularly when they are informed that a failure to abide by this instruction might result in major complications and possibly even death.

No matter how adamantly a patient expresses such intentions, however, hospital staff shut off the water taps in the recovery room and make sure that the patient has no other access to liquids. They have learned by experience that even the dregs from a flower vase can prove too tempting in the middle of a thirsty night.

In these cases–the parachuter and the thirsty patients–the habits they are trying to repeat are almost always adaptive. In every situation right up to the critical ones, the behavioral patterns that open the parachute or lead to the ingestion of water have contributed to these individuals’ well-being. It is only in these unique cases that they end up being self-destructive. However, the brain core considers the behavioral patterns absolutely necessary for survival, and will do everything within its power to initiate their repetition. The brain core is unable to take into consideration, in the least, these habits’ destructive potential.

A similar process occurs with our self-destructive habits. The core of our brain has learned to repeat them as though our survival depended on it. Over time, the cortex, that brain structure capable of evaluating behavioral patterns, loses access to the auto-pilot programs that are initiated by the brain core as they gain momentum and become more rigid and inflexible.

Even after he heard about the parachuter and the stomach surgery patients, one of my clients remained skeptical about the operation a process like this in his life. “In those cases, you’re talking about behavior that really does meet survival needs most of the time,” he point out. “In my case, I work 70 hours plus a week and I make $125,000 a year. I could cut way back and I’d still make about $90,000. The constant pressure I feel to get more work done hardly ranks up there with getting a drink or opening a parachute.” The same could be said for so many compulsive behaviors: it’s hard to imagine how throwing up food or cutting oneself, for instance–two compulsive behaviors that are very common–could ever be mistaken by the brain for behavior that is required for survival.

To understand how the brain gets programmed into repeating non-essential–and sometimes even self-destructive–behavior as though our survival depended on it, let’s return to consider the case of the parachuter in greater depth.

Way back when this soldier went on his first training run as a novice parachuter, what do you suppose was going on as he was falling through the air? We can assume that he had no problem maintaining his concentration on the task at hand as he approached the altitude range where he was supposed to open his chute. He would have had only one goal on his mind, and it was an extremely straightforward one. I’m sure that the only thing he wanted to do was to repeat a simple and well-practiced behavior: reaching up and pulling on the right side of his chest.

We can bet that he wasn’t anticipating dinner that night or wondering where he was going to be transferred in two weeks. How do we know that? We know from experience that when we sense that our survival is at stake, the human brain and body do us the favor of narrowing our attention and blocking out all other considerations for a time. “Nothing concentrates the mind quite like the gallows.”

Our long-term priorities fade and our ability to reason abstractly and think about our values is weakened to the point of incapacitation. Initially, of course, this had a positive effect: it was absolutely essential that the parachuter block out all potential distractions and focus on completing that one, single task. Because of this, the cortex is treated by the core of the brain as an unnecessary and potentially even interfering force, as discussed earlier.

Let’s try to imagine ourselves in that parachuter’s position and then see if we can guess what happened to his breathing as he fell through the air. As he approached the moment when he needed to open up his parachute, all of his muscles likely tensed up and his breathing probably became constricted as well. He may have even held his breath. My guess is that this pattern of breathing and the resulting decrease in oxygen to the brain may actually assist in narrowing our attention even further. If the cortex is deprived of the oxygen it needs to operate optimally, then the goals and complexities that are a part of its usual analysis may fade from our view.

Once the soldier pulled the rip cord and his parachute opened up, I’m sure he felt a wave of relief. He likely heaved a deep breath again, perhaps for the first time in minutes. His well-practiced behavior had brought about its desired result. He could now “breathe easy.” At the same time (and perhaps the two are related physiologically), he once again had the luxury of broadening his perspective so that he could focus on his surroundings or other aspects of his life.

As this soldier continued to take jumps, this pattern would become even more ingrained. As he prepared for each mission, he may have been a little bit nervous. We might even guess that once he got on the plane, his next really good breath was always waiting on the other side of the opening of his chute. Once he had jumped from the plane and was free-falling, he couldn’t really focus on anything else until he had completed the behavioral sequence that brought about the opening of the parachute, because that was the one thing that always ensured his survival.

Perhaps “pulling right” got locked-in as a survival behavior by the brain, in part, because the completion of that action was followed, over and over again, by the soldier taking a breath. Breathing is, of course, our most vital survival behavior of all. We may survive a few seasons without shelter, several weeks without food, and a few days without water. However, if we ever fail to take in oxygen, we will be dead within minutes. Nothing is quite as rewarding as taking a deep breath after a period of holding one’s breath or even after a period of constricted breathing.

Now fast-forward again and consider the predicament of the same soldier as he falls through the air on his final, fateful drop. He constricts his breathing and narrows his attention. For the next few moments, as usual, nothing besides opening his chute will matter. He reaches up and grabs for his ripcord on the right side of his chest. We can imagine the horror of feeling and finding nothing there. He panics, as any of us might. How does anxiety affect his ability to consider options? It narrows his attention even further so that now he’s experiencing a sort of psychological tunnel vision, a laser-like focus on repeating the behavior that has always resulted in relief in the past. As the power of the drive increases, the actions become ever more vigorous. The longer he goes without being able to open up his parachute and receiving the relief he’s after, the more intent he is on repeating the old behavior.

It would be terrifying to know that you are going to die in sixty seconds when you hit the ground; however, in a way this parachuter felt an even greater sense of urgency. Rather than a man who expected to die when he hit the ground, subjectively he was more like a man whose head was being held under water, who was fighting for his next breath. Indeed, he was fighting to open his chute as though his next breath depended on it.

The very process that shut down this soldier’s ability to consider options besides the one that was most ingrained seems to operate in the lives of my clients who have difficulty breaking the cycle of compulsive behavior. My friend who was an workaholic didn’t understand why he felt such a sense of urgency about being productive when his survival didn’t seem to depend on it. As he paid attention during the coming weeks, however, he discovered that he would literally “hold his breath” when he received criticism from a customer and that frequently his next really good breath (and even a good night’s sleep) really did lie on the other side of completing a pressing work project.

Now let’s return to the case of Arnold. He has workaholic tendencies of his own. Although he found work very stressful, he also found it very rewarding to complete tasks and accomplish his goals. He felt very uptight from the pressure he put on himself, but as a result he exerted the kind of effort that had helped him succeed in his career. Of course, there were also problems with his style. If ever his exertion was not rewarded with success (which, of course, was what happened when he couldn’t get his work on the newsletter done that Friday afternoon), he ended up stuck in a state of distress. His usual route to relief had failed him, but the tension had not gone away. This was when he usually turned from his primary compulsive cycle–control and exertion–to his secondary cycle–release and indulgence (see the recovery tip entitled, “Identifying Your Primary Compulsion”).

Arnold was trying to get to his next really good breath by way of completing work tasks; if that route was blocked, however, his body and brain could always return to another habit that was known to provided relief and release. His auto-pilot system initiated its default program, that old, familiar, well-beaten path. Namely, compulsive sexual behavior. A similar collapse in his resolve occurred whenever he was unsuccessful in his compulsive attempts to please his wife.

Preventing Hostile Takeovers

Imagine that on that last jump, the soldier’s habit of pulling right had not killed him, but had damaged him in some of the lesser ways we are typically affected by our compulsive behaviors. In other words, let’s imagine that he lived through the experience and was able to parachute again. What could he do to prevent a similar outcome the next time he must return to the air again to jump with a left-handed chute? The purpose of exploring this question is, of course, to provide insights that we can apply in our efforts to avoid repeating the destructive habits that vex us.

Cursing himself or bemoaning his lack of willpower would likely be of little help. As would gritting his teeth and promising himself he would try harder this time. After all, we cannot possibly imagine anyone being more motivated than he was the last time. Strangely enough, his intense motivation had backfired.

So, how might we encourage him to approach his next jump differently? One thing he could do, and I’m convinced that it is one of the most powerful, would be to change the way he breathes. Given what we’ve discussed thus far, it may not surprise you that one of the most effective self-control tools involves breathing. Just as constricted, irregular breathing coincides with the narrowing of our attention, the taking of deeper, fuller breaths accompanies the consideration of matters from a broader perspective.

Although our perspective may, at least in part, be at the mercy of our physiological arousal level, there is a lot we can do to manage our body’s arousal response. In particular, breathing is one natural automatic response which can be interrupted and directed by way of deliberate intentions.

The soldier might be able to keep his wits about him if he would simply watch for signs that his arousal is building, and then prevent the mental constriction that typically accompanies arousal by making sure he keeps taking full, deep breaths. Similarly, when we can catch ourselves as things begin heating up and take several slow, deep, and regular breaths, we increase the likelihood that we will be able to maintain our self-control.

To explain further, we will consider the illustration on page F2. Each one of the three concentric circles in this figure represents a level of attention and focus. The largest, outermost circle represents a floodlight-like focus. Just like the floodlight on our back porch illuminates the entire backyard, when we are in this state of mind we can process information from a much broader perspective. The cortex is fully engaged and we are able to plan for the future, take our values into account, and, perhaps most importantly, consider an infinite number of options as we decide how to respond to events and other people. This wide range of response options is represented in the illustration by all of the Rs that fill this outer circle.

When we are in this, our most resourceful state of mind, we are much better equipped to make choices and avoid the inertia of bad habits. Even a powerful trigger or stimulus (represented in the illustration by the S to the far left) that at other times might lead almost automatically to the old habitual response (represented by the R within the smallest circle) can be promptly dismissed or managed in other effective ways. In fact, clients often tell me that there are times, particularly when they are well-rested and feeling upbeat, when it seems that temptation is unable to penetrate their defenses, and ends up like the water that rolls off a duck’s back.

At other times, however, like the parachuter, we cannot break out of our narrow focus and truly consider options other than our most ingrained and destructive habit. In the illustration, this kind of tunnel vision and laser-like focus is represented by the smallest circle that contains only one R (response). Once we are in this state of mind, it is as if we were back in an old rut with our blinders on, and it is very difficult to resist the impulse to behave in our compulsive way.

Again, we can push back a narrowing focus and broaden it again by deliberately taking several deep breaths. To encourage clients to use this technique, I playfully tell them, “Imagine that your cortex is Dr. Jeckyll and your brain core is Mr. Hyde. They’re battling away, but it’s not a fair fight! The problem is, Dr. Jeckyll is suffocating. Help him out. Give him some oxygen! Breathe!”

As you experiment with trying to enhance your self-control by managing your breathing, you will find that there is little need to interrupt what you are doing when you feel calm and are thus able to maintain a panoramic view, see a multitude of response options, and feel a sense of freedom to act in whatever way you choose. On the other hand, you may find that you lack the presence of mind to interrupt what you are doing once you’ve worked yourself up and your mind is already accelerating down the track that leads back to your destructive habit. Therefore, it is very important to catch yourself when your attention starts to narrow. At the beginning of this process, you may start to feel a distinct pull back to the compulsive behavior, but will likely find that it is still manageable at this point. Initial urges and cravings typically lack the pressing, irresistible quality they can take on after temptation has been entertained for a time. This state of mind, where our perspective is just beginning to shrink down, but we are not yet blinded to other options, is represented in the illustration on page F2 by the medium-size circle. It is at this point in the process that pausing to take a few deep breaths can be a powerful and sustaining technique.

Unfortunately, we can pass right through this transitional state, this middle ground represented in the figure as the medium-size circle, without ever noticing it. Do not be deceived, however: even when temptation seems to hit us “from out of the blue” or our tempers seem to “snap,” there were usually warning signs that simply went unnoticed. To use breathing most effectively, we must become experts at recognizing the red flags that tell us our focus is starting to narrow and we are stepping into the danger zone.

To begin this process, we should keep an eye out for seemingly minor urges and cravings. If we’re trying to prevent explosions of rage, then we must watch for signs that we’re getting mildly irritated and take our series of deep breaths then. After doing so, we can check for any perceptual changes. When we catch ourselves early enough, we will be better able to keep the “big picture” in mind and prevent lapses in our resolve.

A few weeks later, I followed up with Arnold and asked what he had noticed as he paid attention to his breathing. “I don’t know how a body this big gets by on so little air!” he responded. “My breaths are shallow, short, and relatively far between.”

He was making a concerted effort to interrupt the pattern of constricted breathing by taking a series of seven full, deep breaths whenever he noticed that he was starting to get tense. This exercise sometimes helped him calm his nerves and restore a broader perspective. Of course, sometimes the breathing didn’t help and he still had to practice tolerating some of the periods of distress that he smacked into every few days.

Nonetheless, the benefit for Arnold was apparent. He found that as he learned to be still and breathe through his desires to perform better at work and at home (instead of responding to those urges in his knee-jerk way by compulsive exertion), there was a noticeable decrease in the compulsion to act out sexually. Because he had a healthy way out of the “fight or flight” mode that his body and brain kicked into when he was stressed, he was less dependent on sexual behavior as a route back into the more calm and soothing “feed or breed” mode of living.

Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. is Salt Lake City-based clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction. He can be reached at 801-564-7566. His offices are located at 1258 West South Jordan Parkway, Suite 202, South Jordan, UT and in Davis County at 1785 East 1450 South #233 Clearfield, UT. Mark is author of Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction and coauthor of Willpower Is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change. He specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsive behavior. Contact Dr. Chamberlain to try out his eWorkbook, “Turning from Other Dependencies to God.”

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