by Cosette Dawna Rae, MSW, LSWAIC

As a professional, one of the most common behaviors I see in young adults with problematic technology use is “escapism.” It seems the experiencing of negative emotions is so uncomfortable to clients, that they frequently use a variety of methods to avoid feeling their emotions. One such means of avoiding negative emotions is by “lying.” Young people lie about their grades, they lie about their technology use, and often lie about being able to quit on their own. Lying becomes a convenient way to avoid “perceived” conflict in their increasingly troubled lives.

In a mutually trusting relationship, people are free to share both positive and negative content without fear of reprisal. Someone may not like something said, but the other person trusts that the information will be evaluated, processed and handled appropriately. Thus the relationship is mutually perceived as “safe and healthy.”

In problematic relationships, some ingredient has been introduced which serves to inhibit the perception of safety and security. Maybe a parent has been strict or harsh in the past, leading others to distance themselves as a protective measure. Possibly, the relationship was healthy, but as addiction began to take hold, “fear” emerged, tempers flared, conflict ensued, and the relationship became strained. In any case, the common denominator in many of these situations is “fear.”

When human beings experience fear, the sympathetic nervous system reacts by flooding the body with chemicals to ensure human survival. In a split second, countless physiological changes take place (dilation of blood vessels, acceleration of heart and lungs, digestion slows, pupils dilate, etc.) to assist in the “fight, flight or freeze” response. In many cases, our executive reasoning center (responsible for decision making) goes offline to deal with the impending survival situation.

Imagine a child running out in front of a moving vehicle for instance. Instinctively, most parents would lunge to grab the child from oncoming traffic without thinking about it. If time was spent pondering and ruminating, reaction times may be delayed and the child may be harmed. In fearful situations, human beings are wired neurologically to survive.

Problematic and addictive behaviors often bring about a multitude of negative consequences, much of which leads to an increase in the stress response system.  When people experience overwhelming anxiety (or fear) about letting themselves, or someone else down, one way to escape (flee) the perceived threatening or stressful situation is to lie, escape, or avoid. Once the stress response system is activated, it’s difficult for rational decision making to take place. People do and say things they wouldn’t normally say or do–they raise their voices, yell, and become reactive.

Likewise, the stress response system may also be aroused by thinking about past experiences with a loved one, or remembering a major life event which led to feelings of fear or anxiety. Persons may flee (and lie) under situations where there is no immediate threat of harm, only a perception of what “might” happen. Thus, the addictive, reactive, avoidant pattern of relating continues until something intervenes to break the cyclical nature of dependency.

Healthier relationships begin with the following key ingredients:

  1. Be willing to engage in a process of self-examination
  2. Establish clear and consistent boundaries with others 
  3. Work to interrupt existing patterns of unsafe coping patterns (workaholicism, excessive computer use, addiction, drinking, using anger, lying, etc.)
  4. Implement new, safer and healthier coping activities
  5. Spend time learning new communication strategies
  6. Ask others for support
  7. Be open to feedback on how you’re doing
  8. Be patient with yourself and others

Recovery is an act of courage taken on by the entire family system. It takes courage to admit how addiction has stolen dreams, destroyed careers, ruined relationships, and interfered with “real” life. Repairing the damage done by repeated activation of the stress response system takes time and effort, not just by the addict, but by all those whose lives are intertwined in the dream of happier healthier relating.

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