Addictions and Acceptance Action Therapy
Psychology has moved forward in leaps and bounds over recent years and our knowledge of how to treat addictions has advanced dramatically.
Many people suffering with addictions still gravitate towards 12-step programmes such as those used by Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Anon and others. These programmes, while somewhat dated, can be helpful and supportive for many. One limitation is that they depend on relinquishing control to a higher power, leaving those who cannot embrace such a concept seeking an alternative.
The biggest advance in therapy in recent years has been the development of acceptance-based approaches, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness and Acceptance Action Therapy (AAT). Acceptance-based approaches are changing the world of therapy, including addiction treatments.
People with addictions live in a state of resistance. They resist cravings. That leads them to act in ways driven by their cravings in an attempt to control them, by consuming whatever they’re craving. And that, in turn, reinforces the unconscious beliefs and programming driving the craving.
Practically all mind-based issues are created in the same way. Life events trigger conscious or unconscious beliefs that in turn drive uncomfortable feelings or unproductive desires. Those feelings or desires drive compensating behaviours, which in turn reinforce the beliefs and programming driving the feelings or desires.
A craving, while part physiological, is driven by an unconscious belief that we need whatever we’re craving. Consuming whatever we’re craving reinforces this belief. First the unconscious receives a message that we must need whatever we’re craving; otherwise, why would we be consuming it? Second, the craving subsides, as a result, confirming that the belief must be valid. And so the behaviour reinforces the belief and addictions develop.
Addictions are just one example. Anxiety-based issues such as phobias are generally triggered by a life event that generates an initial unconscious belief which in turn drives anxious feelings. This leads to avoidance, thereby reinforcing the unconscious beliefs driving the anxiety, which just gets worse. Depression is generally triggered by life events that generate negative unconscious beliefs driving depressed feelings. That is turn leads to withdrawal or isolation, which reinforces those unconscious beliefs and so the feelings just get worse. OCD is generally triggered by life events that generate an initial unconscious belief, such as relating to contamination or security risks. That in turn drives behaviour to reduce the perceived risk. The behaviour reinforces the unconscious belief eventually leading to compulsions to continue the behaviour and anxiety if the behaviour is removed.
The prime cure for all these issues, and many more, is to reverse the behaviour. This is one of the two key components of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But this isn’t easy if the feelings, cravings or compulsions driving the behaviour are strong. The answer is learning to accept the feelings, cravings or compulsions and being willing to let them be there, for now.
The opposite of resistance is acceptance. Acceptance-based therapies encourage us to accept uncomfortable feelings rather than resist them. We’re then better able to cease unproductive behaviours that reinforce the problem. Through a combination of acceptance and breaking behaviour patterns, we can start to unwind the programming. And so we begin to gain a sense of control over our lives.
Acceptance Action Therapy (AAT) has powerful tools to enable us to accept uncomfortable feelings or unproductive desires. It initially focuses on two key facts about feelings, cravings and compulsions. First, they’re all harmless. We may be harmed by what we do as a result of these internal experiences. But the experiences themselves are harmless. Even feeling cold is harmless. The source of feeling cold can harm us. That source is ‘being cold’. Being cold can kill us. But the feeling is just a harmless messaging system from the body to the brain, to let the brain know there’s a problem.
The second key fact is that feelings, cravings and compulsions are bearable. The only exception is extreme pain, probably under torture. That level of pain isn’t bearable. The body and mind tend to break down under such extreme pain.
Knowing those two key facts about feelings or desires helps us to accept them (being willing to let them be there for now). And accepting them has three immediate benefits.
First, resisting uncomfortable feelings or unproductive desires immediately increases them. Resistance can make us anxious about feeling anxious or depressed about feeling depressed. Resistance makes cravings, compulsions, feeling cold and any other feeling or desire, feel worse. By contrast, accepting those feelings or desires immediately diminishes them.
The second consequence of accepting feelings and desires has already been mentioned. It enables us to activate a prime AAT tool called ‘Accept the Feeling, Choose the Action’, i.e. it enables us to repeatedly carry out an action opposite to whatever the feeling or desire is driving us to do. This stops us reinforcing the unconscious belief and programming driving the feeling or desire and instead unwinds them.
The third consequence is that accepting uncomfortable feelings or unproductive desires directly contributes to unwinding the unconscious programming driving those feelings or desires. This impact is less significant than the behavioural change, but it still contributes.
Acceptance Action Therapy (AAT), includes powerful techniques for training clients to accept feelings and adopt powerful actions. Acceptance action approaches have transformed the lives of many, including those suffering from addictions. Addictions of every kind, including alcohol and drugs, have been resolved using AAT.