The Problem of Addiction and Recovery

We have eradicated many of what used to be fatal diseases and also increased our life expectancy to the highest it has ever been.  Yet, we are in the midst of a significant global health crisis, which does not align with our incredible medical advances.  

We all recognize heart disease as one of the major killers of our species. But do you know which disease wrecks more lives than heart disease and cancer combined? Addiction!

Perhaps you think that this problem does not impact you.  After all, you are neither a homeless, opioid addict nor a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

In this article, I invite you to reconsider.

Recovery from addiction is a daunting challenge for the individual, family, and for our society. But if we unmask the real problems of addiction, perhaps we can come up with more effective solutions for recovery. 

Although I am not an addiction professional, eliminating obstacles to recovery from addiction is a personal mission for me. This mission began when I was sixteen and lost a loved one to a drug overdose.

For the last thirty years, I have been a committed advocate of addiction recovery. I began this work in college when I volunteered at the “Council for drug problems”. And today, a big part of my work as a Integrative Wellness coach and speaker involves providing addiction professionals with effective tools against compassion fatigue and burnout.

The privilege of working with these incredible individuals has taught me much about what the real problem with addiction is. I have also learned what it means to rise like the phoenix from the ashes and begin a new life.

Addiction and recovery

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

This proverb of the three wise monkeys seems to encapsulate pretty well our problems with addiction. Our lack of moral responsibility and our choice to look the other way on this very solvable problem, may be the most lethal component of this issue.

  1. See No Evil: We don’t see addiction for what it really is


We often view addiction as a weakness, character flaw, or a punishable crime. However, addiction is a disease, which involves well-substantiated alterations of our brain’s structures and functions. Science informs us that the disease of addiction is a “brain disorder that is characterized by engagement in rewarding stimuli despite the adverse consequences.”

Regardless of our personal history, our common biology propels us to act in ways that get us closer to pleasure and away from pain. If we experienced events in our early life that disrupted the proper development of certain parts of our brain, we may be prone to turn to a substance for relief from pain. (Emotional, or physical.)

But we don’t have to be an opioid addict to suffer from this affliction.

Many of us turn to perfectly legal activities to activate the reward center of our brain despite their adverse consequences. These may include alcohol, work, shopping, video games, social media, or something as simple as food.

Addiction is a treatable disease, but we have to see it for what it is for effective recovery to occur.

  1. Hear No Evil: Stigma and shame.

Stigma is defined as “the mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” 

Here is how Stigma shows up as a problem with addiction. Historically, instead of joining hands to create paths to recovery for our fellow humans who struggle with addiction, we have cast them out and punished them. We throw people who are not well into the criminal justice system and make it impossible for them to get well or return to a healthy, productive reality.

Can you imagine punishing a fellow human being for having hypertension, diabetes,or obesity?  Sixty-seven percent of us struggle with weight issues or obesity. How would putting us away solve this problem?

  1. Speak No Evil: Fear makes addiction a silent killer.

Of the twenty million Americans who are struggling with substance misuse, only 10% seek treatment. 

The shame and stigma of addiction drive us to suffer alone and prevent us from seeking help. We are afraid to come forth into the light because of fear of the consequences. Thus, we are deprived of the possibility of treatment and recovery. The problem with hiding our issues with addiction is that it cuts off our lifeline to solutions.

Many people around us struggle with addiction, but we will never know if we don’t speak about it. By hiding our struggles and not celebrating our stories of recovery, we deprive one another of the support and resources to recover. Our hearts have been closed for so long because of our fear of being judged and losing connection.We can gain the relief we need through meaningful connection and kinship with others who perhaps suffer too. But this solution is hi-jacked by our fear. 

The unknown is a significant risk factor for our health,as is social isolation. It is not too late to take an active stance and break the silence of addiction.

If you personally are suffering in silence, know that you are not alone!

Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This is a free and confidential treatment, referral,and information services line open 24 hours/7 days a week.The service is operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Final thoughts

Almost half a century ago, a Professor of psychology named Bruce Alexander came across a compelling discovery in a now famous addiction experiment that he called “Rat Park”.

He found that we do not become addicted to activities that have adverse consequences because we are flawed. We engage in addictive behaviors because we do not have access to healthy ways to overcome the challenges of modern life. These healthy ways include connection to others and a sense of belonging.

The rats in the Rat Park experiment that lived in a housing colony, rather than in an isolated cage, were more resistant to addiction. When we have a solid sense of belonging (much like the rats in the Rat Park experiment), we have a positive way to stay closer to pleasure and further away from pain. We are able to do this without the adverse consequences of addictive substitutes.

I don’t mean to overlook the differences that the contributions of our individual histories of vulnerability, genetic make-ups and environments have on the problem of addiction.

I also do not intend to down-play the unique experiences and challenges that different forms of addiction present to our fellow human beings.

But I do agree with Professor Alexanderon the following point.

Our problem with addiction is much more of a social problem than it is an individual disorder.

We need to replace discrimination with compassion, punishment with compassionate care, and fear with early-addiction education and harm-reduction efforts. When we do this, then we may have the opportunity to solve the problem of addiction.

And we can then begin to end our global health crisis.

Why your brain is a Pessimist

Negative Bias

brainDo you sometimes wonder why out of all the things that happen on any given day we tend to fixate on the negative ones, like a negative remark from our boss? If you get frustrated by your negative tendencies and are secretly jealous of the positive people in the world who seem to always be able to make lemonade out of lemons, do not despair. For our survival, our brain has indeed evolved with a negative default position, called the “Negative Bias.” However, once we understand the inner workings and reasons for our brain’s negative bias, we can work with our brain and harness its power to intercept the unnecessary fear, worry, and anxiety that the negative bias causes and improve our personal and professional life experiences.

What is Negative Bias?

Negative bias is simply a term describing our brain’s tendency to over-estimate threats and under-estimate rewards as a byproduct of our nervous system’s evolution to aid our survival. Our brain’s primary job is to scan the environment for threats and orchestrate our body’s response to do what it has to do to keep us alive. If you can, imagine taking a walk on a nature trail and hearing a rattling sound along your path. Within milliseconds your brain will get notified through your sense of hearing, and immediately check in for any past associations of that sound with a threat. If it finds one, it will then trigger your amygdala (your brain’s fear circuitry), which will in term elicit your stress response to re-direct your energy from essential functions to your large muscle groups so that you can flee from the “imminent threat” ahead. The end result is that your brain’s inner workings will make you run away from where you heard the rattling sound. If our brains were not so effective in responding to signals picked up from the environment, you and I would just keep walking toward the direction of the rattling sound and probably get bitten by a rattlesnake.

Now multiply this experience by 600 million years, during times in the history of our species when the conditions were harsh, and perhaps you can appreciate why our brain is such a pessimist. We did not inherit the genes of ancestors who were enjoying a moment to smell the flowers: Those ancestors got devoured by predators!

The problem with our brain’s negative bias

Once upon a time, our environment presented many threats to our survival. However, that is not the case today. The trouble with our brain’s “stone age” evolutionary propensity to tilt to the negative way of looking at things, inadvertently leads to an activation of our fight or flight response more times than what we are physiologically designed to handle. In fact, we know that when we operate under our stress-response-activation, essential functions, like our immune function, malfunction. We become temporarily compromised—physically, emotionally, perceptually, and cognitively.

We definitely need our brain to continue to assume the worst when we hear suspicious sounds while hiking in Yosemite National Forest. On the other hand, there are things we can incorporate into our day-to-day life to train our brain to become better at focusing on positive experiences to correct for the perceived threat false alarms.

The key to building a happier brain, and thus a happier life, is to give our brain experiences that will help it bounce back from an alarmed state to a calm state, where we regain access to the optimal functioning of our body systems and the executive functioning part of our brain. This executive part of our brain is involved with memory, learning, mediation of rewards, motivation, problem-solving and many more fabulous jobs.

We can build resilience and intercept unnecessary anger, worry, fear, and anxiety so we can return to the optimal state of calmness, joy, and peak performance.

Here are some simple things you can start doing every day to cultivate and grow your brain’s ability to collaborate with you to create the life experience you want.

1. Practice mindfulness meditation.

Far from a mystical practice, all that is required to reap the benefits of one of the best antidotes to negativity is to observe your thoughts and simply recognize worries, anxieties, and fears that are not happening right now and return to your breath.

2. Spend more time with people who nourish and support you and less time with people who are indifferent or negative towards you.

Although indifferent and negative people have their role to play in our lives too, don’t forget the power a parachute gives us when jumping off a plane. We need people who support our cause to weather the storms of life.

 3. When things get tough, return your attention to your Breath.

Remember that your breath is the only bodily function that involves both involuntary and voluntary muscles and nerves. By paying attention to your breath and minding its depth and regularity, you can impact your heart rate and calm yourself down.

 4. Instead of waiting, proactively ask for feedback.

Why wait for someone to express what we could have done better? Why not ask what it is that we should start, stop, or continue doing today?

 5. Be kind to others.

Love and kindness spread in ripples and they have superpowers in diminishing threat-related responses of our evolved nervous system. Being love is the best way to experience love.

 6. Be kind to yourself.

Not just in words, but in actions, forgive yourself for past mistakes, eliminate negative self-talk, and stand up for yourself when anyone treats you in an unkind way.

7. Make time to do things that nourish your spirit and make you come alive.

Walk in nature, paint, sing, dance, make love, take a break, plant an herb garden, volunteer, or do whatever makes you smile. I know time is a limited commodity. But our actions in every minute of every day are what birth our reality, our work, and our relationships.

Final thoughts

Throughout our life’s journey, we are guaranteed to face a mix of situations, some of which will be positive and some of which will be negative. Although we have adopted this notion that someday “everything in our life will fall into place” and we will then be able to finally enjoy the moment, we all need to remember: that moment is here now.

By deepening our awareness of our incredible brain’s inner workings and its built-in negativity bias, we can enhance our capacity to deal better with life’s challenges. Since we cannot prevent things from going wrong, what we can do instead is to put systems in place and incorporate tools, resources, and practices to control how adverse events impact us. Understanding the basis and the reasons behind our negative bias gives us the opportunity to use everyday experiences as a catalyst to retrain our brain to collaborate with us to change our life for the better. By purposefully incorporating practices that allow our nervous system to quickly return to baseline no matter what happens on the outside that causes it to get hi-jacked through our brain’s tendency to assume the worst, we are actually retraining our brain to be happier.

Because after all, how we handle negative situations whether they are perceived or real threats is one of our most profound opportunities to not just learn who we truly are at our core, but also who we can potentially be.

For regular inspiration, awareness, and practices that can teach you how to stay calm and balanced for the greatest health, happiness, and effectiveness regardless of your life situations, I invite you to join my community. I would be honored to be your guide in re-acquainting you with your best self and helping you go from where you are to where you want to be.

Five Simple Science Based Pathways to Happiness

Do you feel happy?

If your answer to that question is “yes but…,” I would like to invite you to consider some unconventional pathways to happiness. After all, among all the things we search for in this life, you could say that happiness is the one pursuit that is universal! In addition, scientific research clearly substantiates that happiness is linked to unimpeded well-being, peak performance, and professional success.

If you would like to experience more happiness, here are five practices based on secrets from the neuroscience of happy people that you can use:

  1. Question and redefine the important elements of your life.

Our beliefs, definitions, and values come from our familial, societal, and cultural history. These become our models of the world, and they affect our patterns of behavior and habits. For example, maybe we were raised with the belief that “to be successful in the corporate world you have to pay your dues and sacrifice your personal life.” That belief can lead to us working late evenings and weekends, which will eventually lead to complete imbalance between work and life. We can free ourselves from our history and create the future we want by carefully redefining the important terms in our life. For example, we could redefine success as “having a healthy work/life balance.” And what about our definition of happiness? Have you considered that the way we define happiness may determine whether or not we will be able to attain it? If we define happiness in an all or nothing way, for example, “I will be happy when I am a millionaire,” that sets us up for being unhappy until or if we reach that goal.

The practice: To identify definitions that inadvertently take you out of balance, a good practice is to dedicate time to observe and change beliefs that we have adopted from our environment that affect us in a negative way. Take a moment to create a list of your top three causes of stress. Then, in a second column, list the beliefs and values that are related to those elements being stressors. What terms do you need to redefine so that you can get closer to wholeness and balance? When I was a starving student in a Northern England university, I was one of the people who thought happiness was “having a million dollars.” Today I define happiness as “the ratio between expectation and outcome.” That way, I have an ongoing list of variables I can adjust to improve my sense of happiness, which lowers my level of stress.

  1. Quiet your mind.

Does mindfulness seem like a mystical practice that you are not sure you are capable of performing? What if we look at mindfulness in a way that takes the mysticism and mystery out of it? Mindfulness is simply the practice of directing our attention to the present moment. Although simple, this practice is the most robust and scientific evidence-based practice for health, productivity, and happiness. Several decades of studies show tremendous structural and functional benefits in the brains of fellow humans who have a regular mindfulness practice.

The practice: Find a small slot every day (5-10 minutes) to keep your attention only on your breath. When you notice your attention wandering off (to a negative interaction with your spouse, what you will cook for dinner, or anything else), simply notice it and bring your attention back to your breath. Little by little, you will be happy to realize that after all these years, much of your suffering was a byproduct of your thoughts and emotions. You can find my favorite guided meditation here to help you get started:

  1. Nurture your body.

We have decades of data reflecting the incredible benefits of healthy foods and exercise on our cardiovascular health. But did you know that exercise has been proven to have another significant effect? It can make you happier! Exercise has been studied as a treatment for depression for the last thirty years, ever since Professor James Blumenthal (Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University) noticed the inadvertent benefit of exercise on reducing symptoms of depression. A more recent review (2013) by the non-profit Colchrane, a leader in gathering and sharing evidence-based medicine resources, concluded that exercise is as effective a treatment for depression as pharmaceutical treatments.

The practice: Take a few moments to plan out your week so you can slowly, but surely, add regular intervals of exercise into your busy schedule. Can you listen to a conference call, your favorite Podcast, or a TED talk while you are taking a walk instead of sitting at your desk? Although at first it may seem like a challenge to fit one more thing into your busy life, I can promise you that if you stick to it for at least three weeks, you can create a new habit for life. The positive impact on your mood of “feel good” chemicals (like glutamate and GABA) released in your brain through exercise will make you so happy you did!

  1. Turn toward what matters.

Whether we turn to neuroscience, psychology, or human experience, the evidence is clear that strong social connections are one of the most important predictors for longevity, health, and happiness! I hear sometimes that we “don’t have time for relationships” in our busy world. As it turns out, having strong relationships that act as a safety net makes us so much happier. Social connections not only flood our system with oxytocin, which reduces fear in our brain, but also create the solid core from which we can conquer the ups and downs of life with increased well-being.

The practice: Add taking the time EVERY DAY to connect with the important people in your life to your to-do list. Ask yourself what you appreciate about them and take the time to let them know. Maybe you can even put a love note in their briefcase.

  1. Cultivate the positive perspective.

Depression is the most common mental disorder in the world affecting more than 300 million people. Prominent scientists around the world have invested a significant amount of time and effort in understanding it. Today, with the insights we have gathered from the way depression affects the brain, we know exactly which parts of our brain we need to affect to build a happy brain that is resilient against depression and anxiety and we know how to do it. For example, we know positive thoughts can build the part of our brains that reduce depression and increase happiness. Best yet, we don’t have to be neuroscientists to benefit from this knowledge.

The practice: Whenever something happens to you that elicits negative emotions, acknowledge the validity of those feelings and redirect your attention to uncovering five positive elements of that experience. For example, if you were just laid off, recognize the legitimate concern about this event. Then focus your attention on how this unforeseen circumstance could perhaps provide you with a much-needed reset space to reconsider your next career move, or with time with your family, and so on and so forth.

FINAL THOUGHTS Beyond the euphoric emotions that we all associate with being happy, there are also many evidence-based benefits to our well-being when we are feeling happy. Being happier not only makes us more open, approachable, hopeful, and optimistic, but also increases our immune function and our ability to calm down in the midst of chaos.There has never been a better time to employ self-compassion and accountability toward nurturing the real sources of happiness in our life.

After all, scientific research has proven that the conventional things we historically go after, fail to make us happier. For example, a relatively recent Princeton University study by Nobel-prize winning economist, Angus Deaton, and psychologist, Daniel Kahneman showed that once one’s income level reaches $75,000 per year, no matter how much more we make, it makes no difference to our degree of happiness!

It appears that beyond the short bursts of primal happiness from having nice material possessions, enjoying a lovely meal, or making love, there is one type of happiness that is internal—one that we carry with us always regardless of the size of our bank account or the type of car we drive.

That kind of happiness hinges upon our ability to maintain a calm nervous system, even when experiences we are having are not pleasant.

Almost six decades of scientific data are illuminating significant clues on how to accomplish having a calm nervous system. We can free ourselves from past limiting beliefs that hold us hostage, redefine the important elements of our life, quiet our minds and nurture our bodies, connect with our loved ones, and focus on the positive, thereby harnessing our incredible nervous system for our health and well-being.

When we establish this sense of internal safety, we will be able to perceive the world and our life as a positive experience.

And that kind of happiness, my friend, is 100% within your control!