Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Intense 'hits' can become addictive.

This is the *extended York Press Wellbeing column, first published on Tuesday, January 30th  2018.

I was feeling fed up and my thoughts turned to chocolate. My thoughts nearly always turn to chocolate when feeling fed up. If not chocolate, something sweet. I won’t be alone and if it’s not something sweet to manage a negative mood, many people will turn to either shopping, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex, or even inexplicably to most people, self-harm. Something to distract one from accepting uncomfortable feelings and working through them. Compensation or a reward which quickly ‘hits the spot’.

*Self-harm presents images of scars, blood and burns and is certainly used to provide an intense hit, instead of managing uncomfortable or distressing emotions. But much of our everyday behaviour could be called self-harm couldn't it? If we've been diagnosed with something which could be helped by a change in our lifestyle, how many of us carry on as before, perhaps taking medication rather than changing lifestyle behaviours?  When we ignore the signs and make in choices and engage in behaviours that could be harmful, isn't that self-harm?

I’ve been writing a magazine article for Tidings magazine, a publication of Colostomy UK, about my reactions when my husband was suddenly taken seriously ill four years ago (happily he is fully recovered). Leaving the hospital at 10am in a state of shock and my mind all over the place, I craved chocolate and red wine. I could acknowledge that the wine was to ‘fuzzy the edges’ and was unwise, as I had to drive later in the day, but chocolate was an easy solution. My favoured chocolate is 90% dark chocolate, but that wasn't going to do. I needed something sweeter and more intense and turned to a Twirl bar with ‘An intense chocolate hit’ written on the side. It certainly does that, though it’s probably an intense sugar hit too. Another one and I was feeling better. Deep down I didn’t really want to eat all that chocolate, I just wanted something to take the uncomfortable emotions away. Twirl bars became my comfort food for a month and even now, when most days I can ignore the blue and yellow packaging, sometimes I give in. 

I’ve thought back to the earliest feelings of eating something sweet to make me feel better and up pops childhood experiences. *I can recall a 'stolen' digestive biscuit in an aunt's house, when I was bored and a sneaky lemon puff biscuit when I was stuck indoors unwell. 

I observe the behaviours still being played out today when I’m out and about. A crying child, a carer and instant gratification to “make it feel better”, usually food based. Most of us have done that and the message is absorbed at an early age. To make us feel better we need a treat and it’s often something sweet. 

* If the memories are not of something sweet, they may be of something that was fun. I recall a man with a gambling addiction. His childhood memories were of his mother having fun with him at seaside fruit machines. 
The need to do something 'to make us feel better' is connected with feelings of not feeling good enough, the driving force of multiple psychological problems rooted in childhood.

Cravings and planning the next ‘hit’ can be symptoms of addictive behaviour. If it’s getting out of control, seek help. Short-term gain, long-term pain.