If you are regularly into a fit of rage or frustration, often feel hopeless or apathetic, or like me, often feel anxious or doubting, find out why this happens to you – and what you can do about it.
If these emotions come up again and again, and with force, you are probably experiencing something psychologists and neuroscientists call ‘emotional addiction’.
What is an emotional addiction?
A pretty loaded term I know but the gist of it is, that as we grow up, we learn to respond to negative or stressful events in a certain way, and then that emotional response becomes a habit. Over time that way off responding becomes our default and colours our reaction to things without us even knowing it. Now there are three primary negative emotions which every other one falls under:
- Anger (rage, outbursts, frustration, disappointment, frustration, resentment)
- Fear (anxiety, hesitation, doubt, lack of trust in self & others)
- Sadness (helplessness, victim mentality, apathy, indifference)
So in developing this habit of going to this negative emotion, we have created a neural pathway in our brain for anger, fear or sadness – me I definitely go to fear as my default – which usually manifests as anxiety. Knowing this, what to do?
I firmly believe that the first step towards any change is…
Before you can change anything you need to be aware of it first.
The problem being with these ‘emotional addictions’ is that they can go largely unnoticed by us (although often very noticeable to others), as we become so used to feeling them – all we know is we feel angry again or lonely again, and can’t seem to do anything about it.
A great example and one I see most commonly in my clients is in being late for everything.
What happens is – however much they try to get somewhere on time, at the last moment, that vital moment of leaving on time, their brain will do all it can to return them to be late. And that because this is what feels ‘safe’, this is the usual way of being. So for example, for my client the other day – she did get up at a good time, she managed to have her breakfast within time, she allowed ample time to get showered and dressed, but in that moment of going to pick up her keys and get out of the door, she suddenly thought “oh I’ve got a couple of minutes and can just answer a few emails”. And there she went, and of course, it took more than a couple of minutes.
This was an old part of her brain (the limbic system) returning her to a behaviour that would ensure she was late – again – therefore returning her to her usual heightened state of anxiety – even though rationally she absolutely did not want to go there.
Her nervous system is ‘addicted’ to the anxiety, its what she knows, it’s how she does things – even though it’s highly unpleasant.
So, start noticing how you’re feeling – either in those ‘extreme’ cases or generally, as sometimes they can be more subtle and just be humming there in the background. Eg. When you wake up how do you feel / what bothers you / what do you ruminate on?
Which category does your emotion fit into? (anger, fear, sadness)
Keep noticing / see if a pattern emerges / When does it show up etc?
(mine is fear – when I’m starting anything new /unknown)
Now, this is the really counter-intuitive bit – but trust me on this one.
I now ask you to accept this emotion. I know all you probably want to do is not feel angry scared or sad. And that is why a lot of what we do aim to alleviate those feelings – and this wanting to remove the emotion is said to be the root of all addictions. And I’m not just talking about drugs and alcohol here – I am talking about our addictions to social media, shopping, eating – whatever we can do to take away the pain – even if temporarily.
But just know that the way you are feeling, this habit or ‘emotional addiction’, has built up over years and probably did serve you well at one point in your life – but accepting it will already start alleviating it and make things easier for you.
The final phase of working ‘with’ these emotions is to allow them to work their way through your body. When we do this, they don’t actually last that long. Psychologists estimate any emotion, allowed to run its course, lasts for 20 – 30 seconds. A small child is a great example of how this can work – watch one, and you will notice that they recover really quickly and move on to something else.
If this is a new concept here is my recommended process:
- Notice the feeling – what type is / where / feel the energy/shortness of breath, muscles tightening / butterflies / get hot?
- Let it go through your body completely if you can – feel it kind of like a wave that takes over but will leave it you ‘allow’ it
- Same applies if it was so fast and you only realise afterwards – review the event and re-feel if you can and follow the same process.
In doing this, in allowing the emotions to flow through us rather than try and push it down or away, we learn to process it without having to act upon it, and realise we can deal with anger, fear or sadness, and move on from it.
I would love to hear your thoughts and responses and how you get on with working with your emotional addictions in the comments below.
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