Liking Snakes – Overcoming Emotional Addiction

In a previous blog, we shared how self-sabotage happens because of the body and brain’s need for safety. Now, we’ll go into how the body and brain become physically addicted to staying in the same patterns through a process called emotional addiction.

To illustrate, we’re going to explore the example through a story of a big dreamer named Keisha. All of today’s information comes from a book called Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza; check it out if you want more on emotional addiction!

As a kid, Keisha tells everyone she wants to be a huge pop star one day. She belts her heart out around the house, draws pictures of herself performing for thousands of people, and already has that big, bold pop star personality.

Growing up, however, she didn’t have the most supportive parents. When she’d belt out Alicia Keys around the house, they’d tell her to be quiet. They shamed her for being a big, bold personality, and frequently told her she’d need to find a stable job instead of trying to make a career out of music. Whew.

In turn, Keisha learned it was safer for her to hide her talents, shrink her personality, and keep her big dreams to herself.

The emotions she constantly felt because of this treatment were shame, sorrow, and anger. She began to feel those emotions so frequently that her body became accustomed to feeling those emotions most of the time. Overtime, her body became physically addicted to those feelings.

How Emotional Addiction Takes Control

Here’s what’s happening at the cellular level to facilitate this emotional addiction:

  1. Emotions are signaled through our bodies by peptides, which are the chemical messengers of emotions.
    They’re small proteins that flow throughout our body and communicate to our cells “Hey! Keisha is feeling sad today.” or “Keisha is so happy!”—whatever the emotion of the moment is.
  2. If we regularly feel a certain combination of emotions, our cells will come to expect the peptides which correlate to those emotions.
    In essence, our cells become addicted to getting a certain amount of specific peptides—the emotions—on a regular basis.
    It’s like if you eat a chocolate cookie every night after dinner, you habitually expect that sweet reward daily. Same deal, just with your peptides (aka emotions) and cells.
  3. If our cells register a decreased level of these peptides, they will signal to our brains through the nervous system, “Hey! We’re low on that emotional combo you always feel! Feed us something!”
    In other words, at the cellular level, our body becomes physiologically addicted to feeling the same emotions in order to maintain a sense of predictability in life. You and your willpower are not to blame for your self-sabotaging patterns; your biology is.

External Self Sabotage

Now back to our story: Keisha grows up and moves out of her unsupportive parents’ house, and has a golden age of feeling empowered, excited and enthused to work towards her dreams.

Soon after, however, she finds herself in an unsupportive relationship and frustrating job which continues to bring up the emotions of shame, sorrow, and anger all over again.

Keisha can’t catch a break! What’s really going on here?

Remember step 3 in emotional addiction? If our cells notice a decreased level of the specific peptides they’re addicted to, then they’ll holler at the brain to send out more of their peptide order.

In return, the brain will seek out experiences and relationships that will trigger a similar emotional response, thereby filling the order from the cells for their peptide cocktail.

So Keisha moves out, and for a while, she no longer has the constant emotional trigger from her parents to feel small and shameful about her dreams. But then her cells say “HEY! Where’s our peptide order?”

And Keisha’s brain, being a dutiful server to the body, starts looking for people, experiences, and anything that can bring up those same feelings of shame, anger, and sorrow.

Hence, Keisha ends up in a stressful work environment and unsupportive partnership which both trigger those same emotions. She’s unhappy, but her brain and her body are LOVING the predictability of this old emotional pattern. 

Internal Self-Sabotage

Let’s take it one step further. Let’s say Keisha has a Bridget Jones’ Diary montage moment and decides to turn her life around: she gets a new, more empowering job and breaks up with her unsupportive partner. There are no more external sources to provide the emotions of shame, sorrow, and anger. 

She has another golden age of not self-sabotaging, just like when she moved out of her parents’ house, but it doesn’t last. Even though Keisha has removed all of the external triggers to feel shame, sorrow, and anger, her brain and body kick in with internal sources of self-sabotage.

She notices that her thoughts start to go down the negative spiral drain. She starts doubting her dreams, and remembers all those awful things her parents would say to her growing up. She feels like a fool for cutting out all those things—who does she think she is?

All of these thoughts—the doubts, the memories, the inner critic—are caused by her physiology. Keisha’s body is noticing that she hasn’t felt shame, sorrow or anger in while (which means her body hasn’t gotten its emotional addiction filled), so it signals to the brain to find a way to provide those emotions.

When there are no external sources of old emotions (relationships, environments, etc), the brain will create internal sources of self-sabotage through negative thinking, replaying old memories, and more.

Keisha has this brief moment of relapse, but it only lasts so long. She stumbles on a concept called mental rehearsal, and it’s how she can soothe her brain and body’s addiction to the emotions of shame, sorrow, and anger. In order to overcome and avoid self-sabotage, the brain and the body need to feel safe and less attuned to old emotions. And the clear path to providing this safety and rewiring emotional addiction is mental rehearsal.

Scott Williams, PhD, of Wright State University, describes mental rehearsal as the “imagined, mental practice of performing a task, as opposed to actually carrying out the task.”

Mental rehearsal has been used by musicians, professional athletes, and public speakers to boost peak performance and achieve their goals. It’s the process of imagining yourself practicing a new skill in your mind. Mental rehearsal has been shown to improve performance in music, healthcare delivery, and sports.

A variety of psychologists and thought leaders in the personal development space share ways you can utilize mental rehearsal to boost your own happiness and quality of life, while also avoiding old, self-sabotaging behaviors. We’ve listed a few below:

Laying New Neural Pathways

In his book, Evolve Your Brain, Joe Dispenza talks about using mental rehearsal to curb the effects of emotional addiction and the self-sabotaging habits it creates. Because emotional addiction feeds off of constantly feeling the same emotions, mental rehearsal provides an opportunity to tap into the new emotions connected to your goals and break up the addiction.

Back to Keisha—as she makes mental rehearsal a practice, so too does she familiarize her body to these new emotions, and creates a sense of “predictability” for what achieving her dreams will feel like. This provides her brain and body a sense of safety, making it easier to walk towards her dreams with less self-sabotage and more confidence and direction.

Liking Snakes

Brett Steenbarger, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University, advocates using mental rehearsal as a way to desensitize yourself to old triggers and overcoming habits.

Steenbarger reviews how psychologists will often use desensitization processes to help clients overcome anxieties. This is a lengthy process of exposing yourself to a cause of anxiety bit by bit to gain control over your response to the anxiety. For example, if you have a fear of snakes, desensitization might include talking about snakes, looking at photos of snakes, being in a room with a caged snake, and potentially even touching a snake, all while utilizing various coping strategies to maintain a sense of calm.

Desensitization often begins with mental rehearsal. An anxious person may begin their desensitization process by visualizing themselves in a room with a snake, which initially will cause some anxiety. In the visualization, however, they enact their coping mechanisms—breathing, reframing negative thoughts, whatever it may be—until they are again in a grounded, calm state.

As Steenberger summarizes, “The anxious person in desensitization treatment doesn’t merely imagine themselves to be calm. They vividly imagine engaging in threatening acts (thereby arousing anxiety) and then they activate effective coping strategies.”

Not all of us have a fear of snakes, but this same method can be exceedingly helpful to overcome anxieties with public speaking, communication, dating, and any other parts of life that you’re ready to respond to with more control and calm.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practicing mental rehearsal really is as simple as it sounds: you mentally rehearse or practice the outcome you want to see in your life; bonus points if you tap into the emotions that arise as you do so.

If you struggle to meditate, I recommend relaxing your body first. A great way to do so is through progressive muscle relaxation, which simply involves scanning your body and relaxing each muscle group as you do so. It’s a technique used to relax folks in hypnosis, and you can follow along at the video linked here.

Once in a meditative state, visualize yourself achieving the future you aspire to. Whether that’s confidently existing in a healthy relationship, practicing the person you want to be to reach your goals, or watching yourself choose a new path in the face of old triggers—the options abound.

If you’re new to meditation, start small: set a time for 3-5 minutes and use that time to mentally rehearse the person you want to be and the changes you want to make. If you’re more versed in taking some quiet time, challenge yourself to do 10-20 minutes. Regardless of the amount of time you take, be sure to focus on the emotions which arise as you visualize, as these will help guide and motivate you into new patterns.

One more option for you: If you really are not the sitting in silence type, you can also do these visualization exercises while walking or zoned out during another task like painting or doodling. Meditation looks different for everyone!

Change is hard, but it gets easier when you understand, acknowledge, and soothe your body and brain’s need for safety and predictability with tools like mental rehearsal. Take a few minutes to try it out today, and if it feels good to you, make it a part of your weekly routine.

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