May 4, 2020

Is Anxiety an Addiction?

by Suzanne Jessee

The mental health community has come a long way in identifying which chemicals and behaviors are addictive, what qualifies as an addiction, why we are addicted and how to treat an addiction.

The Diagnostics Statistical Manual (DSM) has become the medical “bible” so to speak when it comes to diagnosing an addiction. This text onlines a set of criteria for not only determining if an individual has an addiction to chemicals, for example, but also for measuring the degree to which an individual may be addicted. As a clinician specializing in addiction, I have used the DSM many times to diagnose an addiction. As a clinician who also specializes in anxiety disorders, I developed a curiosity about the addictive nature of the underlying problems with anxiety: thoughts.

I am a former sufferer of anxiety and addiction. Prior to my clinical training and experience, I spent a quite a lot of time in self-discovery in an effort to decode my anxiety disorder and subsequent addiction to alcohol. I knew that my chaotic and unstable childhood with trauma was definitely a contributor to my mental illness, but I needed to understand how those experiences resulted in what eventually became debilitating anxiety. It seems too simple for all of it to come down to one sentence I read in Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book Love, Medicine and Miracles, in which he wrote “Thoughts are chemical.”

When I read that bells, whistles, sirens and streamers when off in my head. It suddenly all made sense. Fearful thoughts lead to fearful chemicals, worry thoughts lead to worry chemicals, hopeful thoughts lead to hopeful chemicals, and joyous thoughts lead to joyous chemicals.

I thought about which thoughts I was entertaining. Fear based, obsessive worry, shame, regret , remorse, self pity and negative thoughts ran wild in my head. I knew why my brain was sick: my thoughts were sick.

Once I understood the problem I thought the answer would be simple: if I changed my thoughts I would be healed. Well, it was not that easy. There’s a problem I discovered along the way to my own recovery and in treating other people with anxiety: Thoughts are really, really hard to change.

How do thoughts cause anxiety?

Walter Cannon’s articulation of the Fight or Flight response to a threat helped give the disturbing symptoms of anxiety some clear understanding. Hans Selye’s subsequent clarity that humans can experience the sensation of anxiety whether the threat is real or imagined changed the way psychology and medicine understood and treated anxiety. Selye essentially says that thoughts are chemical. If we perceive a threat – even if we are only thinking about that threat – our brain responds as if the threat is real and prepares us for fight or flight.

Why do humans have negative thoughts?

The reason for our negative thoughts is as simple as it is complicated. It all comes down to nature versus nurture. We inherit personality characteristics, and tendencies toward negative thinking can be inherited as well. They can also be learned, by watching people who are influential to us cope with their lives and by creating thought constructs from traumatic experiences in our own lives.

Understanding how these though characteristics were developed helps one to understand how challenging they are to break.

Are thoughts addictive?

When I say thoughts are hard to change, I mean they are stubborn, resistant and defiant, like an angry toddler that lost his favorite toy. It’s like we are married to these thought habits.

I began to wonder if negative thinking might actually meet the same criteria as addiction.  I referred to my DSM and looked up the criteria once again for substance use disorder, but this time with a different intention. Everywhere I saw the word substance, I replaced it with negative thinking behaviors. This was the result:

·      Taking the Substance(engaging in obsessive worry or negative thinking) in larger amounts or for longer than you meant to.

·      Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance (engaging or negative thoughts) but not managing to.

·      Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from (engaging in obsessive worry or negative thinking) use of the substance

·      Cravings and urges to use the substance (engage in obsessive fear or worry).

·      Not managing to do what you should at work, home or school, because of substance use (obsessive fear or worry).

These are just a few of the criteria on the list. Consider them for a moment. Have you ever had an emotional hangover? Have you ever found it impossible to get a task done because you are exhausted from worrying about something or someone? Have you ever tried to think positively for an extended period of time only to find yourself not being able to resist the urge to worry? The answer is clear. Negative thinking can be addictive, at least in theory. When you consider the astronomical physical ailments related to chronic stress, it becomes clear that negative thinking can also be mentally and physically devastating.

How do we change those stubborn thoughts?

Just like substance abuse disorder, negative thinking can be changed. It isn’t easy. It takes practice and work.

The first thing to do is identify what you are actually thinking, so you can challenge the truth about those thoughts. Even if the thoughts are true (for example, if your loved one is making dangerous choices) it is important to manage the time you spend thinking about it.

The second step is managing the time you spend in fear based, worried thinking. It may sound silly, but make an appointment every day to worry. This will help to increase your awareness to your negative thinking so that you can better manage the time you spend in it.

Finally, make regular use of some sort of positive meditation, hypnosis or guided imagery like Neurogenesis Meditative Therapy (NMT). These types of practices work well to change those old self destructive thoughts because they are able bypass the conscious and critical thinking layers of consciousness to reach into the subconscious mind where the scripts to the thought patterns reside.

Thought is the problem and thought is the solution. Think about what you’re thinking about, your health depends on it.

Suzanne Jessee holds a Master’s Degree in therapy and is the creator of the ESCAPE Anxiety in-home therapeutic program and a pioneer of Neurogenesis Meditative Therapy. She has worked and trained in the world’s leading hospitals and treatment centers including the Betty Ford Center, Brighton Hospital, Foundations Recovery Network and Dawn Farms. She is devoted to helping people find ways to escape the debilitating effects of anxiety and reclaim their lives.



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