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Addiction: Should Traditional Psychotherapy Take a Backseat?

Addiction’s gone viral. After studying both rats and cocaine use and soldiers and heroin, Professor Alexander argues in The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think, “addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage,” and that “this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain.”

Buddhists have a word for a habit so seductive that it seems to trump rational thought, Saṅkhāra. It describes the psychological conditioning, particularly the habit patterns of the unconscious mind over time. Addicts are compelled with an urge toward a destructive behavior, despite the substantial damage to their health, personal relationships and business affairs.

Why the Modern World is Bad For Your Brain points out that constant email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction. In Smartphone Addiction Time-bomb ‘Ready to Explode’ counselors in Ireland are “bracing themselves for an onslaught of smartphone addiction.”

When you want it NOW, will discussing it with your therapist next week even help? Will describing the shame after indulgence prevent relapse?

Whatever addiction (social media, sex, gambling, video games, smoking, drugs, alcohol, food) and whatever the root cause– trauma, a history of emotional abuse, the common denominator is a distortion in brain functioning, a screwed-up reward system; The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how this works. It is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces a feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centres in the prefrontal cortex.

Here’s where Cambria Joy comes in. While overeating is a challenge for many, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is much less common, far more severe, and is associated with significant physical and psychological problems. It is also the most common eating disorder in the States.

Symptoms: Frequent episodes of eating large quantities in short periods of time, Feeling out of control during the episode: Eating too quickly, when not hungry, until uncomfortably full. Feeling depressed, guilty or disgusted by the behavior, eating alone to hide the behavior. Insomnia, stress.

After struggling for years, working with myriad professionals including traditional counselors, doctors and psychologists, Cambria Joy finally found relief.

Cambria wasn’t bulimic, so how did Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good change her life?

1. Binge eating had became all-consuming; she was constantly analyzing her every thought and behavior. Binging had become her “entire world,” and she was determined that it would not be her future. She was ready to do the work.

2. She recognized that past relationships and potentially even experiences from childhood had contributed to her low self-esteem, however

3. She released blame and took full responsibility for her past and future choices.

4. She recognized the behavior was not her. Although she binged every single night and couldn’t break the cycle, she didn’t blame herself for being “weak” for the compulsion that drove her behavior.

5. She understood that like all addictive behavior, whether to drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, internet, sex– the repetitive act rewires the brain.

6. She learned she couldn’t rationalize with the primal brain, driven by instinct; recognizing and observing an urge is different than trying to suppress, fight or act on it.

This technique to free oneself from attachment isn’t new. In ancient Taoism, it’s called Witness Consciousness, that part of you which is able to simply observe thoughts and images as they arise without getting wrapped up or trapped in them.

The witness is actually another level of consciousness.

Psychiatrist Dr. Carl G. Jung noted in a January, 1961 letter to Bill Wilson, Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, “You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: Spiritus contra spiritum.” Distilled Spirits discusses how Bill Wilson came to believe that LSD could help “cynical alcoholics” achieve a “spiritual awakening” and start on a path to recovery.

Dr. Jacques Mabit, runs Takiwasi and boasts a 70% success rate treating cocaine and heroin addicts.. The standard treatment includes isolation in the jungle, extensive work with local shamans and indigenous medicine, (including ayahuasca) a rigid diet, and zero access to external stimuli such as phones, computers, and even books. Jacques believes his clients need “to find clear answers in their existential searches for identity,” and that those answers will lead to abandoning the use of these harmful substances.

Maybe shamans and esoteric teachers have been practicing science all along. 

Miles Carroll, M.A. is a writer and mental health professional living in Santa Barbara, CA. She can be found at,, or @GroundedPsyche on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.