Challenging Addictive Patterns in the Wilderness
Mary Zaunbrecher, MS, LPC | Clinical & Family Services Therapist
Often, when young adults arrive in my team at Open Sky, our conversations tend to center around two pertinent questions: Why do you think your parents believe this is the right setting for you? and What do you hope to work on during your time here? These questions are often met with accounts of family discord, stories of isolation, depression, anxiety, and addictive patterns. While students often have a different perspective on treatment than their parents, the feeling of stagnation is the common thread. Soon after comes the more thought-provoking question: What are you unwilling or afraid to feel?
Often, this “stuck” feeling shows up outwardly in patterns of social avoidance, all-night gaming binges, repetitive alcohol or drug use, eating disorders, or unhealthy relationships. However, emotional avoidance and mental perseveration are likely at the core of the immobility they see and feel in their daily lives. My goal as a therapist is to be an active partner, supporting my students in getting “unstuck” by exploring patterns of thoughts and behaviors, emotional attunement, past resistance, and current motivation for change.
In today’s world, we are taught that the quickest and easiest way through a problem or task is the most advantageous one. Immediate gratification, unlimited social and digital connection, and instant relief are at the heart of technological advancement, medicine, shopping, and social platforms. From medication that quickly dulls pain to next-day delivery that guarantees a high when the package arrives at our doorstep; an Instagram post that collects hundreds of likes in hours to our favorite shows streaming at a moment’s notice—our brains have been trained to expect fast and almost effortless rewards.
This feedback loop is also the foundation for many addictive behavioral patterns that my students struggle with — behaviors that keep them “stuck.” Many individuals who struggle with using drugs, video games, social media, and relationships as a way to avoid discomfort are creating a neurological “super-highway” in their brains. This super-highway takes a shortcut to immediate relief while avoiding working through emotions or negative beliefs. Unfortunately, this short-term immediate relief and instant gratification often come with longer-term consequences. Individuals may not seek or accept support until they realize these consequences have become more and more difficult to manage and keep them feeling “stuck.” Part of their work centers around rebuilding neural “highways” so that they can meet their needs in healthier ways, without taking these shortcuts.
When the work in wilderness begins, we generally look to patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that have maintained the cycle of addictive behaviors. My approach in wilderness is to treat the addictive behavior as a part of the solution to underlying issues or distress, rather than treat it as the central “problem.”
Therefore, the real work comes when students recognize the benefits of learning distress tolerance: the ability to sit through, manage, and work with uncomfortable emotions and situations. The wilderness is a perfect setting for this growth and learning in both the physical and emotional realm. Students are challenged in the daily logistical aspects of life, a group dynamic, and an absence of distractions. These challenges create a productive setting to grow ones’ capacity for distress tolerance.
The “quick fix” culture today can seem practical and desirable on the surface, but what we actually find is these “solutions” can contribute to decreased self-esteem and self-efficacy. The quick fixes actually promote reliance on other people, substances, or behaviors, when what young adults ultimately crave is independence, autonomy, and confidence. I collaborate with each student to create interventions and goals that often involve slowing down, building awareness around addictive patterns, and practicing coping skills. These goals and interventions also focus on developing healthy patterns of behavior that don’t fall into the “quick fix” category. Instead, these healthier patterns help the student attune to discomfort and dis-ease of mind, body, and emotions. They encourage the student to explore how to manage underlying issues in ways that more closely align with values and promote healthy, appropriate, and growth-oriented consequences. The result is a boost in confidence, resilience, and grit, setting the stage for a shift from stuck to un-stuck.
The mindfulness foundation of Open Sky serves as an important backbone to the process of building distress tolerance and ones’ ability to choose other responses. By regulating our nervous system and creating awareness around our mind, body, and spirit, we become more effective as our own best expert and in trusting our ability to make change.
I think of the phrase, “story follows state.” This idea posits that when our nervous state is dysregulated, our narrative—or the stories we tell ourselves—tend to be untrue, inflated, and fear-based. On the flip side, when we think and act from a regulated nervous state, we can more easily see reality for what it is, receive feedback from others, and make values-based decisions rather than impulsive and reactive attempts at controlling our emotions. At Open Sky, we believe that values-driven action creates and promotes meaning and purpose in our daily lives. When our thoughts, beliefs, and actions are driven by what we truly value, we can derive meaning and purpose from multiple sources in any situation.