What is root an addiction? Is it genes? Is it a habit? Is it one’s childhood? Is it a chemical imbalance? Is it bad luck? Is it a brain disease? Is it an access issue, where the vice is just too easy to access? Is it lack of willpower?
Even the word “addiction” ruffles a lot of feathers. There are those that cling to the phrase “I’m an addict” or “I’m a recovering addict” almost as much as their own name. They resist any attempt to redirect the focus away from their identity as an addict. On the flip side, there are those who take great offense at the word “addict” or avoid the word altogether. I’ve seen this with video game addiction, listening to podcasts of academics who study the video game world who wrinkle their nose at the word addiction being associated with video games or shock jocks who score high on a video game addiction quiz and either dismiss the results or jokingly brag, “Gee I guess I’m an addict, hahaha”.
I’ve been through two primary addictions, sugar and video games, and have helped others with their addictions, including video games, overeating, sugar, and smoking. Combining personal experience, clinical experience, neurology training, and personal development, I’ve concluded that all addictions, regardless of the vice, follow the exact same 5-phase cycle, what I’ve called “The Addiction B.E.A.S.T. CycleTM”.
This model was created using pneumonics to easily recall the framework to implement action. Ease of recall is critical, especially when one is in the throws of addiction. Pneumonics in this framework include,
- “ABC” as the first letters of the Addiction B.E.A.S.T. CycleTM,
- The acronym “B.E.A.S.T.” is the exact order of the 5 phases of how an addiction starts and perpetuates itself,
- S.M.O.L.D.E.R.TM is an acronym for the “S” phase of the cycle, and
- The blueprints to correct each phase begins with an “R” (Resolve, Resilience, Restrict, Reverse, and Reach out).
- Accept, Assess, Ask, and Act all begin with “A” to help remember the action steps for the “T” phase.
B = Believe a stressful thought. The cycle of addiction starts with believing a stressful thought. Stressful thoughts include: “I’m unlovable”, “there is not enough time”, “there is too much to do”, “I have to make a decision”, “My [family member] doesn’t like/respect me”, “I’m unlovable”, “He hurt me”, “She rejected me”, “Life isn’t fair”, “People are judging me”, etc. Every one of these stressful thoughts had triggered my video game or sugar addiction in the past. I used to think an addiction started with the vice itself until I listened to Byron Katie’s “The Truth Behind Addiction” parts 1, 2, and 3. This is one of the most important audios on addiction ever recorded and keep the CDs in my car to relisten to and I encourage you to do the same.
The blueprint to correct Believing a stressful thought is to Resolve underlying stressful beliefs. If you cut the addiction cycle at its root, the cycle ends. There are several ways to resolve stressful thoughts which will be covered in another post.
E = Emotional/physical stress response. What makes a thought a belief? An emotional/physical response in the body. A thought is just an image that flies through the head. Yet, if you have a body response to that mental image, now you have transitioned from just a thought to a belief. In short: Mental image + emotional/physical body = belief. Your body will always indicate what you really believe, whether good or bad. A happy belief shows up as easy breathing, a relaxed posture, and happy feelings in the body, such as love, gratitude, and joy. Conversely, a stressful belief shows up as a stressful emotional/physical response, such as anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, resentment, jaw tension, headaches, clenched hands, shallow breathing, and even full body pain.
The blueprint to correct the Emotional/physical stress response is to increase your Resilience by rebalancing your adrenal glands, sleep, brain, body, gut, biochemistry with the Ten Points of WellnessTM. If you have high a resilience, you’ll experience less emotional/physical stress responses from believing stressful thoughts, therefore less likely to reach for a vice to numb out. There are several key areas of health to focus on to increase your resilience, such as your adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are the body’s stress response organs that sit on top of the kidneys. If the adrenal glands are not functioning properly, you’re at risk of being less able to cope with stress, and more vulnerable to addictive behaviors. Likewise, your resilience will drop if you have imbalances in your brain, gut flora, or biochemistry, or if you’re sleep deprived or in chronic pain. The best way to increase resilience is through the Ten Points of WellnessTM, a holistic, logical, and practical system of health to rebalance and rebuild the ten key pillars of health.
The Emotional/physical phase accounts for the predispositions to addiction based on genetics, epigenetics (environmental factors deciding which genes are expressed and how), and neuroplasticitiy (brain rewiring). There is truth to having a genetic predisposition to addiction. There is also truth to having an epigenetic predisposition, meaning the expression of the genes alter based environmental factors, like drinking alcohol while pregnant harms the epigenetic expression of the fetus, not the genes themselves. A stressful or traumatic childhood (an epigenetic or environmental influence) will greatly increase one’s risk to become an addict.
There is truth to neuroplasticity as the culprit, meaning that once you use an addictive substance (whether it’s drugs, video games, sugar, etc.) the brain will overflow with dopamine, the brain’s “reward chemical” creating a “high”. Though it may feel good, neurological highs are very stressful and damaging to the brain. To protect itself from getting overwhelmed again, the brain will subsequently rewire itself to reduce it’s sensitivity to dopamine by withdrawing dopamine receptors from the nerve cells. This process is technically called “receptor downregulation”. If there are fewer places for dopamine to dock on a nerve cell, than the nerve cell will not get as stimulated when a flood of dopamine washes through the brain. Receptor downregulation explains the vicious cycle of “needing” a stronger dose of the vice to get the same “high”. If there are fewer receptors for dopamine to land, then the answer is to flood the brain with stronger and longer doses of dopamine in hopes of triggering the same high. The more you use the vice, the more you need to use a stronger dose of the vice to get the same effect.
Yet genetics, epigenetics, and neuroplasticity should not condemn someone to a permanent label of “addict”. To the contrary, using positive epigenetics and neuroplasticity, one can reverse the addiction cycle despite one’s genetic predisposition. By improving one’s lifestyle using the holistic and logical framework called The Ten Points of WellnessTM you can minimize the impact of genetic predisposition, minimize epigenetic impact of prior and current negative lifestyle choices, create positive epigenetic changes, and rewire the brain for the better…all of which increases your resilience to stressful thoughts. If you have a strong resilience, you’re less likely to need a vice to numb out/anesthetize yourself with a vice.
A = Anesthetize oneself with a vice. To numb out I reached for sugar and video games, while others may reach for food, smoking, booze, drugs, shopping, TV, Facebook, gossiping, or others. Most addicts blame their vice as the problem instead of their low resilience to stress or, more importantly, their inability to resolve stressful thoughts at the root of the addiction. I used to blame video games and sugar. Then I blamed myself as weak-willed or flawed, which wasn’t productive because self-flagellation (attempting to shame myself into quitting) only created more stress to numb out and ironically perpetuated the video gaming addiction to numb out to my self-induced shaming. When I was younger, I really didn’t understand that a vice is just an emotional crutch, a coping mechanism to numb out to the underlying stressful belief systems. Though addressing the root cause of addictions (stressful beliefs) is vital, there is a place to take the vice head on, especially if the vice does immediate and lasting damage. Some vices have more immediate and devastating consequences, like hard street drugs. Others have more longer term consequences like workaholism and smoking.
The blueprint to correct the Anesthetize phase is the 3Rs: Restrict access to the vice, Remove access to the vice, and Replace the vice. Restriction may look like limiting access of video games to only the weekends, while Removal may mean removing the video game consoles from the house, while Replace may mean substituting video game time with reading time. Each vice requires separate ways to be restricted, removed, and replaced depending on the vice, circumstances, culture, and other factors.
For video game addiction, restricting access is very difficult because now everyone with a smartphone is now a ‘dealer’, whether they know it or not. Cheap and ubiquitous wifi (in some cities all wifi is free), make games really easy to access. A new industry of gaming cafes have sprouted across many cities. To truly restrict, remove, and replace video games is very difficult because they are so widespread, easy to access, and culturally accepted.
Compare video games to smoking reflects a few stark differences in how to restrict, remove, and replace access and how cultural influences changes over time. Today, someone smoking on a subway will get a nasty look, maybe even some comments or even arrested, while someone playing video games on their smart phone will be seen as normal. I would argue that video games are so culturally accepted they are almost invisible within the culture like smoking used to be 70+ years ago. Back then smoking used to be so culturally acceptable in the USA, that doctors and dentists gave endorsements. Now smoking is a public offense in many places. Access to smoking has severe age restrictions, financial investment, and cultural stigma. Nicotine patches, hypnosis, support groups, and other treatments for smoking cessation are now the more acceptable cultural norms.
With video games, the cultural norms are the reverse. There is a collective enthusiasm amongst gamers to recruit more gamers, while you don’t see a collective enthusiasm amongst smokers to recruit more smokers. There is also a cultural understanding that smoking is bad for your health, even amongst smokers. This is not true amongst many gamers who are enthralled with gaming. Ask any parent about what happens when they want their video-game-addicted-child to cut down or stop gaming and the parents are met with “gamer rage”, that self-righteous anger fueled by the child’s sense of entitlement to play games and the innate unfairness of the parents to impose limitations.
Whether it’s smoking or video games, each vice requires its own specific set of strategies to reduce, remove, and replace access based on a multitude of factors.
S = S.M.O.L.D.E.R.TM in the consequences from the vice. The acronym S.M.O.L.D.E.R.TM stands for the 7 separate types of consequences a vice may cause: Societal consequences, Monetary consequences, Occupational/educational consequences, Legal consequences, Domestic consequences, Energy/health consequences, and Relationship consequences.
Societally, my video addiction drew sneers and disbelief when I first started talking about it about over 10 years ago. Video game addiction was regarded as a childish, weak-willed, and pathetic…and I was treated as such for admitting I had a problem. However, times have changed. Whenever I speak about video game addiction to crowds, I no longer get chuckles of derision. Instead I hear nervous laughter or dead silence. Why the change? Because now essentially everyone knows someone that has a video game problem, wether it’s your child, sibling, uncle, spouse, best friend, or even your parents. According to the Entertainment Software Association 2015 statistics, video game usage is not just happening to the stereotypical under 18 male, which only comprises 15% of the gaming population. In fact, women over 18 comprise 33% of the gaming population, more than double that of the under 18 males. Further, 44% of gamers are over the age of 35, with 27% over the age of 51.
Monetarily, I not only spent money on bandwidth to play online games, but lost lots of money from missed business opportunities during the time I spent gaming or made poor decisions from game-induced sleep deprivation. Occupationally/educationally, I would arrive to school or the clinic tired because of late night gaming. Legally, there were not any repercussions. I can only see video game addiction have legal repercussions if someone buys a mature game for a minor or if someone feel asleep at the wheel because of late night gaming or gaming at the wheel. Domestically, my room was a mess because I neglected to clean up because it only took time away from gaming. I also isolated myself from the rest of the household, staying in my room to game. Energy/health-wise, I was exhausted from sleep deprivation, skipping meals, and had back pain from hunching over the computer. Relationship-wise, I was essentially a computer hermit, hiding behind a computer instead of going out and meeting people.
Each vice differs in how they harm these 7 categories, e.g. a video game addiction has a very different set of S.M.O.L.D.E.R.TM consequences compared to food addiction, workaholism, drug addiction, and so on. The degree of negative impact varies between vices, yet these 7 categories of consequences are the easiest way to identify how a vice has caused damaged, and from there we can identify how to reverse the damage.
The blueprint to correct the S.M.O.L.D.E.R.TM phase is to Reverse the damage caused by the vice. This is where you make amends to yourself and those you’ve hurt and also change other aspects of your life to put up proper boundaries to prevent further damage. Making amends and reversing the damage is a topic for another post as the types and depths of change required to reverse the damage vary wildly depending on the type of vice, the context of its use, and many other variables.
T = Terrible thoughts after the S.M.O.L.D.E.R.TM. Have you ever ‘snapped out of it’, meaning you just realized you’ve caused a lot of damage because of your addiction? Ever notice the negative self-talk or Terrible thoughts about yourself that fly through your mind? I remember ‘snapping out of it’ at about 2am after playing online for over 6 hours, realizing I forgot I had a test the next day. The negative self-talk included gems like, “I’m a loser”, “I’m a piece of sh*t”, “I just lost this opportunity”, “I’m worthless”, “I can’t believe I lost a night of sleep to this”, “there is no hope for me”, “I’m weak”, and “I’m so stupid”. Does this scenario sound familiar? I had Terrible thoughts about the damage I just did. Then I instantly relapsed. I Believed these Terrible (stressful) thoughts, then felt the Emotional/physical stress response in my body, then immediately sat back down to play another hour of video games just to Anesthetize myself.
If you Believe these Terrible thoughts that follow a S.M.O.L.D.E.R., the cycle repeats. This is the mechanism of a relapse. Have you noticed that relapses happen usually after a stressful event? That was my experience. Whether it was bad news from a family member or my stressful thoughts about my own video game addiction, I would dive back in. What is critical to notice is that the Terrible thoughts that follow the S.M.O.L.D.E.R.TM phase are different than the original stressful thoughts that started the cycle in the first place. It’s more important to resolve the original core stressful thoughts to prevent the cycle from starting than to chase the resultant stressful thoughts at the end of the cycle.
The blueprint to correct for the phase of Terrible thoughts is to Reach out for help: Accept, Ask, Assess, Act. Accept that there is an issue, then Ask for help, then Assess your whole situation with your addiction under guidance of someone experienced, then Act to make the necessary changes.
The Addiction B.E.A.S.T. CycleTM also reveals a key reason why many addicts regress. Many addicts only focus on the phases A and S where they only try to remove the vice and reverse the damage, yet never resolve the root stressful belief systems or increase their resiliency. I tried this with video games, attempting to solve the problem by only removing or blocking access to video game websites, only to find myself reinstalling my web browsers in order to game again. I did ask for help from a friend of mine, but really it only focused on helping me lock out access and keep to my schedule so I didn’t jeopardize my studies. This help was valuable, yet ultimately incomplete as the root of addiction (stressful thoughts) was not resolved.
The movie “Flight” with Denzel Washington is an excellent example an addict who only partially addresses his addiction. He plays an alcoholic pilot named Whip Whitaker who gets drunk at the beginning of a flight, yet must make an emergency crash landing of a damaged passenger plane. He then evades public scrutiny of his alcoholism by hiding at his old family farm and using clever lawyer tricks. While at the farm, he methodically removes all the alcohol that was hidden in about a dozen locations. Whip only really implements any changes at phases A, S, and at times, T. He tried to get rid of his alcohol, minimize the damage his alcoholism has done, and clumsily asks for help, mostly to keep the media and lawsuits at bay. Yet, nowhere did he really rebuild his resilience or resolve the root of his addiction, namely his stressful belief systems. Merely removing all the alcohol from access and covering up some damage was not enough…he relapses. Only at the end of the movie, when he (spoiler alert) ends up in jail for his alcoholism does he begin to address his underlying stressors, which signals the real road to recovery.
My hope is that The Addiction B.E.A.S.T. CycleTM becomes the new way to logically and practically reverse addictions. It’s worked very well for me: I haven’t eaten junk candy in years and I haven’t played a video game since April 2014. If I ever see myself wanting to play video games, I go back to the 5 phases and identify where I’m stuck and then correct course. Ask yourself, where are you in this cycle? Are you ready to resolve your underlying stressful beliefs? Have you increased your resilience? Have you restricted, removed, and replaced access? Have you reversed the damage? Have you reached out for health?
In future articles, we will explore in more detail the blueprints to correct each phase. Please let me know what you think in the comments below.
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About the author: Dr. Sam Shay is a holistic chiropractor, acupuncturist, and functional neurologist. He overcame his own sugar and video game addiction and helps others do the same. He is passionate about rewriting the current models for addiction, integrating the latest neurological research with practical strategies to help each stage of addiction. Learn more about his story in this video below:
Dr. Shay is also the author the ebook: “7 Ways to Game Less: How to Unplug and Live More”
Available at: www.DrSamShay.com/gaming-disorder-help