Addiction, People-Pleasing, Stress, and Neurology

By Dorri Olds 02/17/17

MacDonald explained that the body can only be in one of two states: fight or flight or rest, digest, repair.

Dr. Don MacDonald
Discover the trigger, change the habit.

It’s safe to say that all addicts and alcoholics have trouble with impulse control, hence the high relapse rate. But is there a way to train the brain to have stronger sway over compulsive urges? Dr. Don MacDonald, author of the bestseller, The Underdog Curse, says yes. “Dr. Don” (as his patients call him) is a chiropractor and spinal research advocate who has long been fascinated by neurology.

“The key is to discover what triggers the impulse,” MacDonald told The Fix. “I have a patient who discovered a surprising trigger — being in a good mood. Feeling good would make him want to have a drink. Then alcohol would amplify his good time, and he said everyone loved him in this state because he was so much fun.”

According to MacDonald, once the patient discovered his trigger, he learned to notice when it was activated.

“He had to create another routine to respond to the trigger,” said MacDonald, “like working out or going for a walk. He also learned a technique in rehab. He reminds himself, ‘I did not come this far to only come this far.’ That’s helped him greatly. It has been a long, hard road and he doesn’t want to go back so that little phrase helps remind him to stay on course and redirect his impulses.”

Has the impulse to drink gone away? “No,” said MacDonald, “but he gets better at noticing the triggers and changing focus.”

So, social acceptance was the reward driving that man’s impulse to drink. Many substance abusers—whether active or in recovery—worry about what others think of them. Many began drinking and drugging in their teens when anxiety around social pressures was high. How much of our overall health is directly related to worrying?

“According to the American Medical Association,” said MacDonald, “60% of all diseases is caused by chronic stress.” He reiterated the connection between anxiety and interpersonal relationships.

MacDonald said, “Drinking to fit in can start out innocently enough, but when you realize it’s impossible to make everyone happy, you become resentful. Resentment can make you withdraw from society, friends, and family, and you fall deeper into addiction. Then the toxicity of addiction erodes your health, which creates even more stress.”

Change happens when you’re ready to look at your thinking process according to MacDonald. His book talks about the price we pay for people-pleasing. “Awareness is the key to changing,” he said. “If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, you won’t be able to correct it. Years of people-pleasing can crush you.” So what’s the answer? “The only way out of it,” he said, “is the uncomfortable portal of change.”

Most of us are bombarded by stress. MacDonald said that the danger of stress is the slowly accumulated damage that it causes over time. When addicts feel stressed they turn to their substance of choice. While under the influence, angst is lifted, but when they keep using, the substance itself becomes a stressor.

When you put toxins into your body, over time your body will weaken. As that happens, your mind, which is connected to your body, will suffer too. MacDonald explained that the body can only be in one of two states: fight or flight or rest, digest, repair.

He spoke about life’s four main stressors:

  1. Physical: Many people don’t realize the damage that has been accumulating while they weren’t looking. Stress on your body can be caused by car accidents, sports injuries, childhood falls, sleeping incorrectly, or bad posture while working at a computer day after day.”
  2. Emotional: The number one reason people lose their health. It can be caused by fear, guilt, anger, resentment, excitement, sadness, frustration, worry, and any other emotion that keeps your mind continuously active. It’s much easier for me to tell a patient to sit correctly at an ergonomic workstation, but telling someone to stop worrying about family, work, finances, or anything else is not so simple.
  3. Chemical: caused by any non-nutritional substance entering your body, including alcohol, drugs (including prescribed medications), polluted air or water, and chemicals in food. “Whenever your body has to break down toxic substances,” said the doctor, “your nervous system goes into a fight-or-flight response, which adds to your stress level.”
  4. Electromagnetic: When an electronic device is used, it gives off an electromagnetic field. It’s rare to go even one day without being exposed to electric currents.

Many of his patients are under so much stress they’ve described feeling disconnected from their bodies. They’re “spaced out” and find it difficult to concentrate. “It’s vitally important to decrease the stress in your life and learn how to release it,” he tells them.

If you’re in a 12-step recovery program, you’ve probably heard that you should stay out of any new romantic relationships for the first year. The reason is two-fold. First, heartbreak is one of the toughest challenges in life and many relapse over it. And second, if one member of a couple slips, the other often follows.

MacDonald pointed out four types of relationship bonds that we form with others. Three of these end up being one sided, meaning one person does most of the influencing in the relationship. Whether you’re trying to stay sober, lose weight, go to school, or get healthy, the people around you have a huge influence on whether or not you will hit your targets.

His book discusses the four types of bonds in much more detail but here’s an overview:

  1. The Control Bond is meant to be the first that we encounter in life and that’s for a good reason. Parents need to have control in our early life so they can keep us safe and see us through development during our formative years. As the years go by, parents are supposed to loosen their grip as the child grows into adolescence, and then adulthood.

“This type of bond,” said MacDonald, “can also come from an overbearing supervisor, friend, sibling, or partner. They are typically the voice that says, ‘I know better. Do it my way.’”

The upside of the control bond is that it keeps you safe in childhood and makes you do things you don’t want to do, like homework or eat your vegetables. The downside of the control bond is when a parent holds on too long. By infantilizing you, that can keep you smooshed into an unhealthy role you don’t want.

  1. The Comfort Bond feels really good. It might be a friend who always agrees with you, or rushes to your side when you’re in need. This is someone who will listen to you for hours and make sure you’re all right before they leave. Enablers fall into this category

“The comfort bond may feel good, but may not be helping you,”says McDonald. “When you’re trying to stay away from liquor, that friend might say, ‘Oh, come on. It’s been a long week, let’s treat ourselves to a drink. You deserve it!’ The comfort bond loves you and has your back but that doesn’t always mean it’ll support your growth. It has the potential to sabotage your success by reintroducing bad habits or by denouncing your need to change.”

  1. The Guilt Bond is tricky. It may have the magnetic pull of the comfort bond but may feel like the leash of a control bond. “This bond has a way of resisting change. In the beginning, it might’ve been comfortable but it can begin to feel strained. It should be easy to spot. If you feel guilty about not inviting this person to a party or get-together, it’s a guilt bond. If you feel obligated to include people, look after them, or answer to them, then it’s a guilt bond. It is no longer about your best interests; it’s about theirs.”

MacDonald explained, “As you’re trying to grow and change, to reinvent yourself, the guilt bond isn’t consciously trying to hold you back. But they might’ve become scared they’re losing you.”

Suppose you and your sibling used to go out drinking together and suddenly you’re trying to get sober, it can feel threatening. They may start to worry about being left behind, no longer needed. They might try to prevent you from changing by heaping a ton of guilt on you.

“It’s a rare thing that a guilt bond is trying to make you feel bad,” said MacDonald. “They’re just consumed with their own fears, insecurities, and may be unable to move out of a defense mindset with you. When you’re getting sober, the key is to find the fourth bond.”

  1. The Power Bond is the one that can help you move forward. It’s someone who can give you a healthy push when you need it. “This bond,” said the doctor, “will always help you reach for your better self. If you’re in a rut, the power bond will help you get out of it. The power bond always has your best interests at heart.” An AA sponsor would fall under this category, as would a mentor.

The bottom line is, when you drink or drug you damage your health. MacDonald brought it back to neurology. “The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that decides if you are going to do what you’re craving to do. A good example is to eat that cake, yell at someone, get in a fist fight, skip the gym, or do alcohol or drugs. As the prefrontal cortex gets damaged you start to lose the ability to make sound choices. That’s why addiction can turn into a runaway train.”

According to MacDonald, “The cure for anxiety isn’t in a pill—that just masks it. The cure also never comes from avoiding the things that make you anxious—then you’re just running and your body is trapped in fight or flight. There are chemical, hormonal, neurological, and physiological repercussions if you continually place yourself under pressure to please everybody else. The body and brain are set up to see that as a threat. No matter what your physical problem is—depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, arthritis—underneath it is a stressor that isn’t going away until you change.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.