React vs. Respond: Unconscious vs. Conscious
When the brain is under tremendous pressure, such as experiencing addictive cravings, your emotions will run high. In addition, any type of outside stimulation, such as a request from a caregiver or a knock at the door, can trigger a reaction tied to your fight-or-flight emotions.
The addicted brain is often unable to understand the intensity of such pressures. Because addiction hijacks your ability to manage basic human needs by putting the desire for drugs or alcohol in front of other needs, other pressures that should be primary become secondary. Your family’s need for food may fall the ranking of importance in your mind; you will face guilt over not providing it, but the craving may take precedence.
The hijacked brain attaches a survival need to the addictive substance over the survival need for food. In addition, cultural shame around addiction can add to your guilt and frustration, causing a volatile and dangerous mix that can lead to a scary, unconscious reaction.
Responding is done both with the conscious and the unconscious mind. However, it is hard to hear the conscious mind when the amygdala is triggered. When the fight or flight reaction becomes married to a drug craving, logic and conscious response go out the window.
What Is a Reaction?
A reaction is a triggered action, either physical or verbal, driven by emotions rather than thoughts. Because addiction hijacks the brain, your ability to respond logically may be impossible. The pressured or hijacked brain simply doesn’t have the synapses available to:
- Consider the source of the trigger
- Carefully review what you could say or do
- Respond appropriately
For example, a parent under severe pressure from a drug or alcohol craving may be unprepared for a screaming match between the children in the house. Instead, the reaction may apply an adult-sized scream or a physical response to a child’s fight or argument. Regret may be instantaneous and sorrow immediate, but reacting to such pressures can be deadly.
For those who grew up in volatile households governed by addicted parents, the ability to honor emotional reactions may be limited. As a result, you may squelch down your frustration and anger until it explodes in inappropriate ways. Over time, the inability to honor and release your emotional reactions will affect your physical and mental health.
What Is a Response?
A response offers mental breathing room between the stimulus and your measured action. When you have the mental space to respond, it’s because you can give your brain that split second to:
- See the event
- Understand the players
- Note that your survival is not at risk
- Respond appropriately rather than reacting in anger or fear
Learning to respond can be incredibly challenging if the only behavior you can mirror is reacting. Unfortunately, for those at higher risk of addiction, such as those with a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism, or those who grew up in traumatic households, the parental behaviors you saw may have been all reactive.
For people who grew up with a parent or parents prone to lashing out when experiencing negative emotions and then becoming approachable and fun when they were feeling positive, the tendency to react is likely to be more normalized. As a result, you may believe that your inclination to react rather than respond is who you are. However, it is possible to learn responsive behaviors.
Because an addicted brain is hijacked, learning to meditate can be especially helpful to build in that response time. Basic meditation is tied to cleansing the mind and shedding destructive or errant thoughts. As you develop your meditation practice, you can learn to train your mind during meditation, which can lower your need for drugs and alcohol. For example, suppose you have struggled to control depression or anxious thoughts. Meditation can be a powerful tool for training your brain to focus on the positive. If money is a worry, you can instead focus on the bounty in your cupboards, the plants in your garden, or the blessing of your job.
Meditation is also incredibly restful to the tired brain. For those who have used depressive drugs to help their brain shut down before bed, getting quality rest during detox and rehab may be difficult. However, meditating for 10 to 15 minutes daily is enough to start enjoying its relaxing benefits, including a more focused, calm brain. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress levels and help regulate emotions. Many find that guided meditation is an excellent way to learn and develop strong meditation practices.
Regular meditation practice can also lower the need to judge each thought that comes into your head. One of the most significant challenges recovering addicts face as they work through detox and rehab is hindsight bias. You may be beating yourself up forever, taking that first sip, pull, or puff. If all your focus is on judging your past actions, you won’t be able to see a way forward. As you meditate, introducing curiosity into your process is a particularly effective way to avoid becoming focused on the past.
We may look at our past selves and focus on all the bad from those actions. However, some good can come from those experiences. You may have met people who are supportive of your choices now. You may have found work or a business that will support you and allow you to grow as you come out of treatment. Even if all you learned from the experience was a hard lesson to move forward, it’s usable and can’t be considered all bad.
The Craft of Building a Response
Learning to respond introduces shades of gray into black-and-white thinking. Because of the stigma and cultural shame around addiction, getting your family involved in therapy sessions may be challenging. If you have an older family member who believes that your weakness contributed to your addiction and that they don’t need to participate in your therapy, the ability to respond can save emotional energy. Consider how that person may be:
- Triggered by memories of their own addiction or a family member’s struggle
- Guilty because they introduced you to the substance or didn’t keep you from it
- Embarrassed by their addictive behavior
Dealing with pain is difficult for everyone, but it can be almost impossible for people who lack emotional intelligence. Over time, it becomes easy to tie emotional distress to the fight or flight reaction. Your personality takes on a “hot stove” feel; you don’t want to touch those feelings if you’re unhappy. You may not even be able to get close to them. The pain of others may trigger a reaction that makes you feel anger.
Developing or improving emotional intelligence will take work beyond detox and rehab. Functionally, you’re training your brain to build in time for perception. For example, if someone makes a dumb joke that may feel hurtful, you can stop yourself from reacting as though you’ve been attacked or are feeling injured. Instead, you can ask yourself if the comment was intended to be hurtful or if it was just a joke.
Because you have the choice to learn to craft a response rather than just unleashing a reaction, you can build calmness and safety into your responses. You can choose not to be injured. You can release the discomfort that the comment caused.
Know and Manage Your Triggers
For those who only react, the risk of relapse is dangerous. When your brain is under pressure and affected by a stimulus that engages the amygdala, you may reach for the first source of comfort. For example, if drugs or alcohol were your first source of comfort for an extended period, pressure could trigger a craving.
There are short-term pressures and long-term pressures. The HALT lesson of the 12 steps reminds us not to get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Meditation can help build tools in your brain to manage Angry and Tired. For example, reaching out to a friend will be easier if you didn’t snap at them the last time you met up. Meditation can also help you separate your triggers and find the correct response. For example, filling the hole with food can be tempting if you feel emotionally empty. However, overeating is another form of addiction that can lead to serious health issues over time.
Learning to identify your pain is critical to healthy and lasting recovery. While you are detoxing, your brain has less flexibility; you’re just working on getting through withdrawal symptoms. This is why the power of rehab is that you now have a safe space to learn new skills. Learning a less volatile way to live may be challenging if your life has been filled with people who only react. Building confidence in and learning to control your emotions requires the support of skilled counselors and caregivers. Contact Granite Recovery Centers if you are ready to start your journey toward recovery.