Tying back to yesterday’s post, one of the most important discoveries (after the one about why and how addiction is a brain disease) I made was to learn that the family member’s “problem” is rooted in the fight-or-flight stress response system. This system is the one wired into the human species to keep the species safe in the face of danger (fight or run but don’t just stand there!).
For many family members and friends who are repeatedly faced with a loved one’s drinking or drug use behaviors (arguments, blackouts, broken promises, inconsistent actions, sneaking, hiding, lying, driving under the influence), this system instinctively engages as they try to cope, control, minimize, deny, protect self and others when faced with a loved one’s chronic substance misuse with little or no understanding of the condition/disease. When repeatedly activated, the neural networks become embedded brain maps around the triggering emotion (anger, fear, frustration, dashed hope, insecurity, anxiety), eventually causing a person to react to all emotions as if they were facts. To better understand this concept, check out Coping With Secondhand Drinking/Drugging as a Young Person Can Cause a Young Person to Wire Unhealthy Coping Skills .
Look at the image above more closely. On the left is a stick and on the right is a snake. Dr. Ratey’s expression is a metaphor for what happens to a person when they get stuck in the fight-or-flight stress response system (like that which happens to family members and friends trying to stay safe from or cope with a loved one’s drinking or drug use behaviors). They start to see all sticks as snakes. And they quit responding — meaning to engage in a reasoned, thought-out response (which occurs in the Cerebral Cortex neural networks) vs a reactionary reaction (which occurs in the Limbic System’s fight-or-flight neural networks). Thus, immediately recalling this expression, “Is it a Stick or a Snake?” when you sense that anxious, angry, fearful, sad feeling starting to rise, can buy you the seconds it takes to STOP yourself from giving in and reacting to the emotion as if it were a fact. For more on how, check out, Step Away From the Conflict – Change Where You Think .