There has long been debate in the psychology field about the root cause of addiction. Is it nature? Does an individual’s biology cause compulsive or addictive behavior? Or is it nurture, a process of social construction in which a person’s social environment teaches and then reinforces the compulsive or addictive behavior?
Our thoughts in fact can affect our biology in positive or negative ways, and cause us to act accordingly. Our thoughts reflect our view of ourselves and the world, and social conditions play a big part in determining what these are.
So when treating addiction, you must pay attention to both. How has your out of control behavior affected not only your biology but also what is going on inside your head? Like the cycle of binging on sugar leaves you feeling sick but still hungry (a biological response) contributing to another binge, the negative thought that started the binge is as important as the triggers you missed leading up to the first bite.
For women, this is a complicated issue. We are living in the shadow of 5,000 years of patriarchal oppression, a social phenomena that values men first and women last. This organizing principle is so entrenched in our dominant culture that the mere use of the word can silence a room or cause a riot. Madonna recently caused quite a stir for her comments about the conditions for modern women!
What does the oppression of women have to do with women’s addiction? Everything.
Here is the environment that women live in on a daily basis:
Women spend every day in what social scientists call a “rape culture” in which you are physically at risk, economically oppressed, bombarded with daily advertisements selling you something to “improve” your appearance, and spiritually adrift with no culturally approved path to enlightenment without serving a male god of some sort.
Women stuff this reality so far out of their awareness they actually go numb to how disapproving of themselves they are. Women spent $11 billion on plastic surgery in 2014 alone. A lack of belonging or disenfranchisement means women are twice as likely to have co-occurring anxiety disorder and depression, because the brain system involved in the fight-or-flight response is activated more readily in women and stays activated longer than men. Also, researchers point to child sexual abuse or rape traumas increasing the risk of substance abuse because the devastating trauma is stored in a woman’s nervous system causing her to self-medicate for relief.
Because of these social conditions, women are vulnerable to developing substance addictions to drugs (prescription or otherwise), alcohol, food, caffeine, nicotine, or a process addiction. A process addiction is a compulsive behavior such as gambling, sex, relationships, overspending, or shopping. This term is often used to refer to a behavior that does not necessarily involve a substance-induced intoxication, but rather the body produces a chemical reaction such as endorphines in response to the behavior.
Unraveling the addictive cycle
So how do you get clean and sober or stop a negative compulsive behavior?
Community: Participating in a socially restorative environment where new messages and behaviors are reinforced accelerates the change process. Twelve-step programs, peer support groups, or group psychotherapy are all great examples of what social psychologists call “communities of practice.” Women focused groups focus on the unique social conditions facing women today and how to navigate these challenges with better coping mechanisms.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy: This is the treatment of choice for disordered eating, anxiety disorders, and depression. An individual is made conscious of the negative thoughts that trigger compulsive behaviors and the early warning signs that help deter relapse. These negative thoughts are replaced with more positive, accurate, and life-affirming beliefs. Homework, reflection, and practice reinforce the new thoughts while simultaneously growing new neuropathways in the body that retrain the nervous system.
Information and Education: The more you know, the better prepared you are to interrupt an addictive cycle. Understanding the brain-body connection and the consequences of addictive behavior can shed new light on why you are doing what you are doing by drawing the line in the sand between your biology and psychology.
Expressive Arts: Adjunct treatment methods like art therapy, dream analysis, sandplay, or movement therapy enable exploration of the deep unconscious, and encourage imagination and creativity as ways knowing yourself and the world.
Spiritual Practice: At the root of all addiction is a crisis of faith. Committing to a spiritual practice whether Yoga, Agape, Zen, Wicca, or any organized religion of your choosing allows for your unique experience as a woman and assists you in creating a tangible relationship with that invisible force behind all this visible life.
Yours in psyche and spirit,