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Is the Word Itself a Harmful Label?

Anyone that has experience in the marketing world can tell you that the way in which people speak about things makes a big difference. Words matter—not just in the way we think about things but the underlying ways in which we feel about those things.

The person that originally labeled climate change “global warming” probably wishes they could have that description back. That old moniker led many people to question the science when massive winter blizzards hit the U.S. and Europe. A popular internet meme showed a man shoveling 6 feet of snow and asking, “How do you like all that global warming?” The term itself lessened the credibility of the science. Despite near universal agreement by scientists that climate change is occurring, the general public has been slow to accept the concept. Merely the mislabeling of the phenomenon of climate change made the science harder to seriously discuss and set back policy change by nearly a decade.

From our perspective as hypnotists, the treatment of addiction has met a similar challenge. By calling the problem of drinking too much or drugging too much an “addiction,” the focus of the problem shifts to the substance itself. In reality, alcohol or drugs aren’t the problem. It’s their use that’s the problem.

This isn’t to say that the focus should be on the user’s integrity, personality or character. People that are drinking or drugging too much deserve compassion and care. They are generally good people looking for a way to escape something they’re feeling. No one truly chooses to mess up their lives, their families, their finances and their careers with these kinds of challenges. The focus should not be on the motives of the user, rather we believe that the focus should be on the underlying reason that users use.

The label of “addiction” turns the attention to the physical and/or psychological power of the substance or activity to keep a user hooked. But, as any person struggling with doing something too much can tell you, the stopping of the substance is not the hardest part. Yes, it can be very difficult to experience the withdrawal symptoms of alcohol, meth, heroin, cocaine or pills; but most users have one time or many times been able to outlast the physical symptoms on their own … only to find themselves back in the cycle weeks, months or years down the road. If we as a society are going to truly be successful at combating addiction, we must look beyond the addictive period of these substances and turn our attention to the real reasons people begin to use them in the first place and return to them even after the addictive nature of the substances has long passed.

It may challenge some people’s long-held beliefs to consider the fact that a meth user that hasn’t used in two weeks is not suffering with addiction—at least not a physical addiction. Meth clears the system in anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Yes, there are brain changes that occur through usage that may lead to desires to reuse, but those desires can be overcome. What can’t be overcome for most people is the feeling of sadness, unworthiness, loneliness or self-loathing that they’ve been running from all along. When that feeling returns due to work stress or relationship issues, the mind of the user may believe that drugs or alcohol are the only real solution. Without tools to overcome the underlying feeling, the user will often return to using—not because they’re “addicted” but because they’re feeling a deep emptiness that they cannot fill in any other way.

As hypnotists, we approach these “too much” behaviors by seeking the real cause of the use, even when the original issue has been resolved or long-since forgotten. If we can clear the subconscious mind of the erroneous or outdated thinking, then the user should be able to use their own willpower to overcome the addiction.

Unfortunately, most treatment methods are focused on getting the user through the withdrawal period and sending them back out on the street. The user remains fundamentally stuck, with the real problem and the bad habit likely to return.

Hypnosis doesn’t “fix” a user. It allows the person to do the work that allows all the other things to work more effectively. That’s why hypnosis is becoming such an integral part of the treatment at successful addiction centers such as Passages and at the Mayo Clinic in-patient program.

When the underlying issues are resolved in a meaningful way, a user can find the other things that will help keep them on a clean path. Whether that’s complete abstinence, step programs like AA or NA, rehab, behavioral therapy, lifestyle changes or a combination of all of them.

We often tell our clients to focus on what works for YOU. Each user is different. Everyone’s reasons for using are different. Everyone’s solutions will be different. If you’re struggling with addiction, find what helps you be successful.


Randy Hampton is a writer, social scientist, hypnotist and blogger living in Honolulu. 

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