What did I say? I said, “We need more porn in church!” More specifically, we need more discussion about porn at church. Before I became a counselor, I was a pastor. For 22 years I married couples, buried the deceased, led meetings, preached, taught Sunday School classes, did fund raising, and a multitude of other tasks too numerous to mention. I also provided counsel to many struggling with addictions of various sorts…including addiction to pornography.
But one thing I was rarely encouraged to discuss was the impact of pornography. In the last church I served as pastor, I used the word “masturbation” in a sermon. At the conclusion of the service, I was told in no uncertain terms, that I was not to talk about that topic again. The rationale was that “masturbation and sexuality was a family matter and that the proper place to discuss that was in the home. Parents should talk to their children about that, not pastors, and certainly not in church.”
Not that I would disagree, healthy discussion about sex in the home is essential. But given our culture, and given the rarity of discussions at home, we need more education in our religious organizations.
That was over 10 years. I’m afraid that little has changed. I now attend a “megachurch” and do not serve in any leadership capacity. In our church, I’ve noted sexual purity is discussed once or twice a year. In my humble opinion, as a counselor and addictions expert, many churches are missing a great opportunity to address a growing need.
Consider the impact of porn on the brain…
Early exposure to pornography has a negative impact on the development of adolescents. With the advances of neuroscience, we now understand factors influencing brain development as never before. For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine is key to brain functions such as movement, motivation, reward, punishment, and learning. Due to dopamine’s key role in how pleasure is experienced, it is linked to addiction (more info).
Pornography was less accessible when I was a teen. Friends, siblings, or parents were the source of print material. In today’s digital world teens and even children have access to high definition videos of graphic sexual acts. Today there is access to harder, more explicit forms of porn from the privacy of one’s home computer, notepad, or smart phone. Sabina, Wolak, and Finkelor wrote an academic article in 2008 noting that 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to online pornography during adolescence. According to this study, “boys were more likely to be exposed at an earlier age, to see more images, [and] to see more extreme images (e.g., rape, child pornography).” For the still developing adolescent brain this is like an hit of crack cocaine and the result is a brain that is “wired” to seek more of. Check out http://www.yourbrainonporn.com/ for more info.
How we learn…
Two theories about how people learn are “Social Learning Theory” and Script Theory.” The basic premise is that as individuals observe things in life (whether real or via the media) they develop mental “scripts” that serve to guide behavior. Scripts help us develop an expectation of how things will act. As a result we can predict outcomes of behavior. For example, based on prior experiences, I can predict that if I walk into a furniture store a salesperson will quickly and perhaps even aggressively, help me find a piece of furniture and offer to arrange quick, easy financing. (My apologies to readers who make their living in sales.) These learning principles apply to how teens learn about sex. If their primary means of getting information about what it means to be sexual is by watching pornography, or even watching less graphic depictions of sexual activity as portrayed on TV, their expectations about what it means to be sexual will be based on attitudes, behaviors, and values that do not reflect what most parents what for their children.
What are the consequences?
Others have discussed the consequences of early porn use:
- Men have a tendency to look at women as “parts” thus objectifying them (see article in Scientific American).
- Harris and Barlett have made a lengthy, but readable, summary of research on the Effects of Sex in the Media available online. Key points suggest porn use leads to:
- Heightened sexual arousal
- A tendency to become desensitized to violence among viewers
- Skewed perspectives regarding gender differences
- Values that diminish the value of women
- Relational difficulties, including seeing one’s partner as less desirable
- Increased likelihood to experiment sexually
Once again, I state my case for the need to address these issues in the church. Why? Because someone is teaching your children! Harris and Barlett cite a 1998 Time/CNN poll that noted that 29% of teens identified the media as their primary source of information about sex. Friends accounted for 45% of their sex education. Only 7% cited parents and just 3% cited formal sex education as their primary source of information about sex. Our children and teens need sane voices that talk about sex as a wonderful gift from God. Healthy sex is a good thing. Let’s not let others ruin it for our children.
Thanks for stopping by.
An amazing thing is happening. Over the last 10-15 years scientists have shared their discoveries about how the brain functions. New knowledge about how the brain functions provide incredible insights for both addiction treatment and relationships. But before I write about some of my recent research, we need a brief refresher course on the anatomy and function of the brain.
Thinking of the brain vertically
It is common to think about the brain either vertically, or horizontally. In the vertical model writers talk about the triune brain. This approach conceptualizes the major parts of the brain in three main sections: the brainstem, the limbic system and the cortex. Dan Siegel illustrates this beautifully in his video.
As Dr. Siegel notes, the brainstem and limbic system work together and monitor our basic biological systems as well as our emotions. This is why when we are frightened or anxious our heart rate increases. In response to a perceived threat, the limbic system kicks into action and we enter into the familiar “fight, flight, or freeze” responses. There are also implications for addiction. When we see something that triggers our addictive system (an attractive woman for a sex addict, a bottle of vodka for an alcoholic) our limbic system jumps into action and sends signals to rev up the engines because another opportunity to act out has presented itself.
The cortex is the outer layer of the brain and in the frontal areas, just behind the eyes, we find the region responsible for executive function and, more importantly, for emotional control. Now here’s the problem…the cortex and the prefrontal regions that provide control do not come online as quickly as the brainstem and limbic systems do. The limbic system can register a threat in as little as 20 to 30 milliseconds. Unfortunately the control center, the prefrontal cortex, does not respond until 300 to 400 milliseconds later. By that time, emotions are already revved up and moving in response to the perceived threat.
What’s a person to do? And, what does this have to do with addiction? Learning to recognize what is happening is essential. Dan Siegel talks about the need for “integration” of the brain systems in his book Mindsight. Through practice and training, we can in fact learn to slow the process of response down to give our prefrontal cortex time to become engaged in recognizing threat, or recognizing triggers in the case of addiction. (Check out Dr. Siegel’s webpage at: http://drdansiegel.com/ for more information.)
Thinking of the brain horizontally
Another common way to think about the anatomy of the brain is to think in terms of two hemispheres, each with different but interconnected functions. The left hemisphere is primarily geared to handle the logical, linear, language based functions of life. The right side is more concerned with emotions, imagery, and the relational side of life. Many of us are oriented to one side or the other. Some will “dwell” in the left hemisphere and they tend to approach everything logically, giving it a verbal description. Those more oriented to the right hemisphere are not only more emotional, but tend to think in images. Again, balance, or integration is important. Dan Siegel’s video on the two hemispheres is helpful here…especially as it relates to the importance of integration.
Two types of memory
Another component of brain function has captured my attention lately. Scientists tend to think in terms of explicit and implicit memory. Implicit memories are those memories that are stored deep with our sense of self. They are also more difficult to translate into words. For example, most of us at some point learned to ride a bicycle. The ability to maintain our balance, control our speed and direction, all while waving to our friends is implicit memory. Try putting into words all the things our brains do to remain upright on a bicycle…. Tough to do. However, if I ask you how to get to the public library, you can probably give me specific step-by-step instructions. Data, like directions to the library, is stored in what is called explicit memory.
As such, it is difficult to think about the brain as a single unit. We think in terms of regions, and while they are interconnected, they are also distinct. Here’s where it gets interesting. Dr. Allan Schore is part of the clinical faculty of ULCA Medical School. His research on the brain, and on emotional regulation, is fascinating. Dr. Schore suggests the idea of a single unitary “self” is misleading. We should instead think in terms of a conscious left-brain self-system and an unconscious right-brain self-system. He suggests that while we are more aware of the left-brain functions (through language and normal problem solving tasks of everyday life) it is really the right brain that is truly dominant in human existence. In short, emotions rule.
Here’s what this means in every day life. In our interaction with others we “read” non-verbal signals at an amazingly fast pace (30 – 40 milliseconds) and those are continually being interpreted for possible threat. We form emotional responses to those non-verbal cues long before we verbally interpret the meaning of those cues. In some cases (many cases I’m afraid) we go through life basically oblivious to the non-verbal cues we are sending and receiving. Is it any wonder confused husbands ask in total bewilderment, “What did I do?” Too often they have made their living in the left-brain work-a-day world and communicating with their wives at an emotional level is like speaking a foreign language…literally. Another important point here…the emotional side of life is often implicit. We learn (through our interaction with our primary caregiver(s) in infancy and childhood the meaning of attachment. In the context of relationship we learn, or fail to learn, feeling safe and secure in a relationship. That carries over into adult relationships.
There are implications for the addict as well. Without good integration, our addictive tendencies can be triggered and a brainstem/limbic system response can “take over” our normal restraint. Being triggered activates deep emotional responses. (See an earlier post on How Porn affects the Brain to learn about the role of dopamine and other neurotransmitters.) The result is what we sometimes call “bottom-up” living. That is, making decisions based on the activity of the lower portions of the brain as opposed to the prefrontal cortex. This is why addicts will tell themselves “I know I shouldn’t do this. I know this will lead to trouble,” and go right ahead and act out.
So, let’s sum this up. What does this mean for us in terms of deep change? Some of what follows is a summary of my reading of late. Some of the following bullet points are questions for all of us to ponder more deeply.
- For deep change to occur, implicit memories must be addressed. These memories are those things we have absorbed so deeply into our being that we rarely question their appropriateness. For the addict, looking lustfully at another person is “just what men do.” For the trauma victim, “You can’t trust others.” While Cognitive Behavior Therapy approaches can help tremendously with coping and behavioral changes, deep healing requires addressing those core issues of how we see life at its deepest level.
- Implicit memories can be changed. The 2005 Annual Meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism in Santa Barbara, CA focused on how implicit cognitions can be changed and how changes will influence behavior. The consensus is that those with addiction have a bias toward responding to stimuli related to their drug of choice. (The alcoholic who sees a picture of a bottle of vodka wants a drink.) However, therapies can be designed to reduce those biases. People can learn to respond to triggers differently. So, when in sex addiction treatment I speak with addicts about the importance of bouncing their eyes as opposed to staring lustfully at another person or image, there are good reasons to believe that is effective.
- And what about a faith dimension to this? What does it really mean when Jesus calls his followers to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself?” How do implicit memories play into my ability, or inability, to be consistent in my love of God and others? Dallas Willard writes about the role of the classic spiritual disciplines. He notes that the purpose of the disciplines (prayer, fasting, service, silence, etc.) is to train us to do those things naturally. In other words, we “pray always” until prayer becomes natural for us. We practice silence until we no longer feel the need to fill the air with words and can sit quietly until prompted to speak from the heart. To me, this sounds a lot like making the principles taught by the spiritual disciplines implicit in our lives.
Sounds like a life long process….
Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC
In The Anatomy of the Soul, Curt Thompson M.D. combines recent developments in neuroscience with a more classical approach to spiritual growth from a distinctively Christian perspective…good stuff.
As I read his work I’m frequently reminded that what he is saying applies powerfully to addiction. A key principle in the book is that what we pay attention to affects our lives. Paying attention is both a voluntary activity (e.g., paying attention to how I drive as opposed to texting while driving) and an automatic, even unconscious, activity (e.g., the startle response that occurs when I look up from fiddling with my phone while driving to see a car coming straight toward me). Paying attention in life has its advantages.
Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about the tendency to operate on “automatic pilot.” This approach to living is the mechanical approach to living that comes from not being fully aware of my surroundings or actions. Living on automatic pilot is illustrated by those sometimes humorous and sometimes frustrating events like mindlessly placing the TV remote in the refrigerator when I go for a quick snack during the commercial. How does the remote end up in the refrigerator? Simple. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing…my mind was somewhere else.
Or, more to the point of addictive living, it is the person who mindlessly spends much of the day drifting from one sexual fantasy to another while on automatic pilot. Others become unwilling participants in the addict’s fantasy when the addict sees her and mentally begins undressing the person in his mind. At this point, the addict enters into the addictive cycle, a concept discussed at length by Dr. Patrick Carnes and others. (Click here for more about the addiction cycle.)
Paying attention is a skill that can be improved upon. I’m reminded of a classic in Christian devotional literature that illustrates this principle powerfully. In, The Practice of the Presence of God, Bro. Lawrence writes about his determination to always dwell inwardly in an awareness of God’s presence. He notes that many times his mind would wander away to other things. Each time he caught himself he would gently return his attention of God. Two important principles are at work here. One, Bro. Lawrence was gentle with himself. He did not label himself a failure or wallow in guilt for having fallen short of his goal. He “gently” brought himself back to a state of awareness. Second, he made a conscious choice about what he would focus his attention on. He was intentional. Both gentleness with our selves as we develop this skill and determination to choose appropriate things to focus our attention on are important.
Thompson says, “I tell my patients that one of the most important questions they can reflect on is the following: ‘How well am I paying attention to what I am paying attention to?’” (Kindle edition, p. 52). This is no play on words or tongue twister. Thompson is referring to the ability to step outside one’s self…to become an observer of our selves and to become aware of what we are thinking, feeling, and doing. Practitioners of meditation have written about this for years and it is a vitally important skill for healthy living.
Consider these possible benefits from paying attention:
1) The addict is able to catch himself early in the addictive cycle and more effectively turn his attention to something safe and appropriate. This is akin to Arterburn’s principle of bouncing the eyes (click here for more on bouncing). This relates not only to what we are looking at, but also to what we are thinking, doing, and desiring.
2) Paying attention shuts down the automatic pilot that allows us to mindless wander through life with little intention and with numerous negative consequences. Jon Kabat-Zinn lists numerous health benefits, including decreased stress, fewer problems with anger, and better sleep. Who wouldn’t want that?
3) From a brain science perspective, old neural pathways that have been actively engaged around sexual fantasies are powerful within the addict’s mind. These must be replaced because they will not simply go away. The question of how to break a bad habit comes into play here. How do you break a habit? By establishing a new habit. Choosing to be intentional about what you are paying attention to is one way to establish a healthy habit as opposed to living life on automatic pilot.
4) There is a sense in which we learn a new “language” when we begin to pay attention to our body in a more intentional manner. Thompson makes a strong case for discovering what our body is saying to us. This applies to how emotions feel within our body, to what God may be saying to us through our body. Have you ever noticed that when you are with certain people you physically feel different? Around some you are more relaxed. Others create a sense of tension. Learning to “listen” to what our bodies are telling us is key to healthy living and to healthy relationships. (This actually relates to brainstem and limbic system responses to perceived threats and will be the focus a future post on this site.)
5) And, perhaps in summary, there is the potential for a greater sense of productivity. At the very least, paying attention lessens the likely I will loose the TV remote in the refrigerator. (Now where are my glasses….)
Thanks for stopping by.
The impact of porn on the brain is significant and lasting. While some argue that viewing porn is harmless and those who complain about its use are old-fashioned and closed-minded, neuroscience provides important information to the contrary. This is particularly true for adolescents whose brains are still developing. Consider this:
Exposure to porn and brain development.
With advances in neuroscience we now understand factors influencing brain development as never before. Several neurotransmitters are involved in arousal and orgasm. For example, dopamine is key to brain functions such as movement, motivation, reward, punishment, and learning. Due to dopamine’s key role in how pleasure is experienced, it is linked to addiction. Drugs, such as cocaine, target the dopamine system and result in huge releases of dopamine—which leads to feeling “high.” Even the anticipation of ingesting cocaine results in a release of dopamine. As the pattern of seeking, ingesting, and experiencing the high associated with cocaine use continues neural pathways are formed that are easily reactivated as the individual becomes increasingly addicted. For more about neurotransmitters and their function in arousal check out http://www.reuniting.info/science/sex_in_the_brain.
The same neuro-chemical processes are at work in the use of pornography. As images are viewed arousal occurs. That is, dopamine is beginning to be released and pleasure, or the anticipation of pleasure, is experienced.
This also helps explain why sexual images and memories are so problematic for addicts. One of the reasons an orgasm feels so good is that large amounts of those chemicals are released into the brain. This reinforces the growing neural networks and wires the brain to seek more of this pleasurable experience. To do this, the memory of the pornographic image, or the sexual experience, is moved from short-term memory to long-term memory. This allows for “euphoric recall.” Such recall is remembering and reliving a fantasy that has provided pleasure but conveniently forgetting the negative impact. This recall encourages the brain to continue to look for more of the kind of images and experiences that will result in another “fix.”
When I was an adolescent pornography was less accessible. Friends, siblings, or parents were the source of print material or awkward films that demanded a projector. In today’s digital world teens and children have easy access to harder, more explicit forms of porn from the privacy of a home computer, notepad, or smart phone. Sabina, Wolak, and Finkelor wrote an academic article in 2008 noting that 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to online pornography during adolescence. According to this study, “boys were more likely to be exposed at an earlier age, to see more images, [and] to see more extreme images (e.g., rape, child pornography).” For the still developing adolescent brain this is like an injection of crack cocaine and the result is a brain that is “wired” to seek more of the dopamine associated with viewing porn.
How porn robs users of pleasure
The odd thing about chronic pornography users is that they generally began using porn as a result of the pleasure it brought them (dopamine’s role as discussed above). With continued use however, pleasure diminishes. The trap of pornography is that pleasure becomes an elusive prize. The more the user searches for pleasure, the less he/she finds it. Here’s why:
The repeated high doses of the “chemical bath” associated with orgasm result in the brain’s inability to process and enjoy those chemicals at the same level it so desperately craves. What was once like a jolt of electricity surging through the central nervous system is reduced to a point it is no longer satisfying. Addicts often report symptoms of depression, relational problems, and a general sense of the joy of life having been lost. Why? Because the natural balance and function of the brain’s neurochemicals have been replaced by frantic search for another “fix.”
Some refer to sex addiction as the ultimate attention deficit disorder (ADD). Like ADD, the addict is continually scanning and searching for a new and novel experience. One way this search for new and novel experience plays out in the lives of users is that their search leads them to web sites and areas that they would normally have no interest in. For example, some who consider themselves straight and traditional in their sexual preferences will find themselves looking at gay porn or sado/masochistic websites in an effort to discover something new. It is the brain’s search for novelty, and for a chemical fix that leads the person to such sites. This, coupled with the fact that the high resolution video often available in today’s Internet porn is more graphic and more violent than what was available even a few years ago, leads the user deeper and deeper into the trap of seeking a novel experience. The overall result is like the preverbal “carrot on a stick.” The satisfaction one seeks is always just out of reach and so the efforts to capture the experience continue on and on.
What to do
So, what do we do in response to this? One of most important things to do is to work to protect the minds of our youth, that is, to prevent this problem in the first place. If the statistics are correct, and 93% of boys and 62% of girls will be exposed to pornographic images during adolescence we need to be having the tough conversations with our children about the impact porn. Helpful information is available (for example, check out Amy O’Leary’s article “How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography” at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/10/garden/porn-intro.html).
Another way to help is to make pornography a safe topic to discuss at home. Rather than go into “panic mode” if evidence of pornography’s use appears in the computer’s history, find a way to talk about it without overreacting. Make protection from porn’s negative impact a family decision. Filtering software should be installed on all computers and mobile devices. Discussions should be conducted to ensure that children and adolescents know the filters were installed for the protection of the whole family as opposed to being punitive. Again, make it safe to talk about these topics.
Another thing to consider is that adults often need to “unlearn” old habits. Our minds are wonderfully powerful instruments of learning. Unfortunately, we sometimes learn the wrong things, like the ability to drift off into sexual fantasy to avoid a stressful situation. A future blog post will deal with the issue of guarding and changing our thought lives. However, at this point I would simply say that it is easier to replace faulty thinking than it is to stop faulty thinking. Here’s what I mean by this. The person struggling with addiction will often tell themselves, and others, not to think about inappropriate things. That is, don’t fantasize about another person or sexual situation. A much more effective approach is to catch one’s self thinking something inappropriate and replace that thought with something more appropriate.
To illustrate this try sitting quietly and telling yourself not to think about that nagging itch in the middle of your back. The more you try to not think about it, the more powerful the thought becomes. However, if the thought appears to you and you choose instead to think about how beautiful the sunset is, the thought will diminish, if not completely vanish.
The same holds true for lustful thoughts. Change your thinking just as you would change the channel if you were watching TV. Think about your spouse, your children, a project at work, the plot of a good movie or book, or any of a number of other healthy appropriate topics. The longer and more frequently you stop your fantasy and replace it with something appropriate, the less power that pattern of thinking will have over you.
We’ve covered a lot in this post…all the way from neurotransmitters such as dopamine and brain function to protection of your family from the impact of unwanted porn. The brain is a powerful and wonderful instrument. Use it wisely and protect it. It has the potential of being a great ally in our battle for effective and healthy living.
Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC
Who are you…really?
In the film, Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart asked Ingrid Bergman, “Who are you really, and what were you before? What did you do and what did you think, huh?”
The question of personal identity has been around for most of recorded history. The question is raised when we fall in love—as in the movie. It’s raised as we struggle to find our place in the world. And for the person or family struggling with addiction how it is answered depends upon who is asking the question.
For the active addict, the response is, “I am an addict. I am a failure, a liar, and I am not worthy of another’s love.”
For the spouse, the response is often, “You are a liar and a cheat. I can never trust you with my heart again.”
For the child of an addict, “You are my parent, and although I love you deeply, I can’t understand why you do the things you do. You’ve broken my heart.”
Carl Jung, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, developed a theory of the personality that provides some help when we begin asking about a person’s identity. One aspect is particularly helpful for understanding what happens to the identity of an addict.
Jung is known for the idea of Archetypes. There are several, many of which have something to say about how we shape our lives, but the archetype of the Persona is of particular importance. One’s persona represents his or her public image. The word itself comes from the Latin word for “mask.” A persona is the mask each of us wears as we interact with our peers at work, our family, our friends, or our fellow church members. The danger here is that we invest ourselves in our personas (Yes, we can have more than one.) to the point that we don’t realize we are acting a part. We loose ourselves in the role.
In a wonderful book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer refers to an article in The New Yorker where Alec Wilkinson reported on his interview with serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Wilkinson says, “[Gacy] appears to have no inner being. I often had the feeling that he was like an actor who had created a role and polished it so carefully that he had become the role and the role had become him.”
What Jung wrote of years before was epitomized in the life of Gacy. He developed the persona of a killer and played it to perfection. But isn’t this what happens to the addict? Addicts develop multiple roles. They become adept at blending in with whatever crowd they are part of at the time. Their chameleon-like behavior conceals their inner world from those not allowed into the darkness of that persona. The mask protects them from discovery. The mask becomes in essence, their identity.
Healing demands integrity. This integrity is more that just living up to one’s word. This integrity touches all of the person. It is integrity of identity. The whole of life is brought under the identity of a person in recovery. That person strives to be consistent in word, thought, and deed, regardless the setting.
For the person in recovery the journey of self-discovery is often comprised of learning how the persona of addiction has misshapen her or his life. Sobriety and health demand that we be brutally honest with the lies of the persona. Sobriety demands we ask the question often, “Who are you, really?”
The 12-Step tradition has it right. Meetings are begun and people are introduced by facing their powerlessness over the nagging call of the persona…the addict. But the message of health and wholeness is that we need not be defined nor defeated by our past. We create our future through honesty, with the help of others, and lots of grace.
Who are you…really?
Recently I was privileged to be part of a conference in which I spoke on the topic of “Avoiding the Spiritual Bypass: Why Solving Sexual Problems is more than a Spiritual Issue.” Here’s a summary of my presentation.
We began with the question of why change is so difficult. Most of us want quick solutions to our problems. The reality is that most problems, particularly complex problems, demand more thoughtful responses. American culture in general, and people of faith in particular, also believe that a quick sudden change is a sign of strength or an indicator of strong faith. However, even Biblical examples of change appear to often be slow and methodical when examined closely. Consider Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road. Many people look to this as a sudden change. What is ignored however is the fact that following this encounter, Paul as he is now called, went to Galatia for a period of somewhere between two and three years. Many look at this as a time when he solidified drastic changes within his life.
People have been writing about both rapid and slow change for quite some time. William James, in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) referred to rapid change as “religious conversions.” He noted that these changes were often preceded by despair and suggested that some people are predisposed to this type of experience. James also noted that for many people these changes seemed sweeping, touching many aspects of life while for others the change touched only a particular area of life.
The field of psychology has been somewhat slow in picking up the theme of research regarding change, and this has been complicated by the fact that for many years researchers in psychology avoided anything to do with religion. James Loder wrote The Transforming Moment in 1981. Maslow wrote of what he called mystical or “peak” experiences. An interesting component of Maslow’s writing was the question of why so many of these peak experiences failed to result in lasting change.
More recently, William Miller, an addictions researcher, has written about what he called “quantum change.” Such change, according to Miller, had several of the same characteristics that William James, James Loder, and Abraham Maslow wrote about. Change was often distinctive, came as a surprise, was accompanied by a great sense of benevolence, and tended to have a sense of permanence.
When considering change other recent approaches are worthy of discussion. The work of Prochaska, Norcross, DiClemente, on the stages of change is important. According to the authors, change occurs through predictable stages. Precontemplation is the equivalent of denial. Contemplation acknowledges a problem exists. Preparation is a stage in which the individual makes a decision and begins to prepare for change. Action is implementing the change. And maintenance is how the change is maintained over time.
Lambert and Bergin (1994) and Duncan, Miller, Wampold, and Hubble (2010) have all noted that there are several common factors working together to facilitate change. The greatest single factor is the support system of the individual seeking change. The old adage is you don’t give an alcoholic a job in a bar. The same is true for any addictive person. If they return to a family or work environment where those around them are not supportive of change the likelihood of them maintaining change is lessened. This accounts for 40% of change that occurs within an individual in therapy according to the researchers. The next factor for how we account for change within therapy is in the therapeutic relationship. This looks at questions of how the individual relates to the therapist. Does the patient trust the therapist? Does the patient feel heard? Do they work together collaboratively to find a solution to the problem? This therapeutic relationship accounts for 30% of change according to the researchers. Two other ways to conceptualize how change occurs in therapy are the therapeutic techniques utilized (15%) and a sense of expectancy, or the placebo effect, on the part of the patient (15%).
Looking at Christian literature Cloud and Townsend noted that groups are essential for change (2001). Tripp and Lane, in How People Change, suggested that community grounded in a proper understanding of God is essential to change.
To summarize the research then suggests that rapid change is at times possible and can be lasting. However, this change is rare and most change tends to be relationally based and is supported over an extended period of time. Lasting change tends to impact the person at several levels and is more sweeping than just changing a few behaviors.
When it comes to change with regard to sexual issues the issue is particularly complex. Sex is a natural drive. It is not the purpose nor intention of sexual addiction therapists to eliminate the sex drive. The challenge is to eliminate compulsive and destructive behaviors while enjoying a satisfying and enriching sex life with one’s partner.
To address such issues it is necessary to provide a holistic approach. For quick summary of the holistic approach I would point you to a previous post, Is Sexual Addiction Real? in this blog. In that post I wrote about sexual addiction as: a brain disease, an intimacy disorder, a problem of attention, a maladaptive response to stress, and a family disease. Any holistic approach to change must address each of these areas.
But what about the spiritual side and what is this thing called a spiritual bypass? Cashwell, Bently, and Yarborough, (2007) wrote, “Spiritual bypass occurs when a person attempts to heal psychological wounds at the spiritual level only and avoids the important (albeit often difficult and painful) work at the other levels, including the cognitive, physical, emotional, and interpersonal.” They further suggest that the spiritual bypass is dangerous because it renders the process of spiritual development incomplete. This means that it does not allow for the deep work of change in the person’s life. (The many different areas discussed in the previous paragraph.)
I’m reminded of the model developed by Dallas Willard in his book, Renovation of the Heart. Willard presented a model of concentric circles. Beginning at the center is the Spirit which he defined as comprising the heart and the will of a person. The next circle is the Mind which is the seat of thoughts and emotions. The next circle is the Body and this is followed by the Social dimension of life. The outer circle is the Soul which comprises the whole of the person: spirit, mind, body, and social. Willard has an arrow intruding from the outside through the various concentric circles to the very heart and spirit of a person. This arrow is illustrative of how the Word and the Spirit of Christ enters into a person. From that center another arrow follows wherein faith in Christ, which has reestablished communion with God, leads a person into a healthy appropriate relationship with the world. As such then the person truly can love God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength and the neighbor as one’s self. In this way all the various components of the individual are brought under the authority of God, reshaped/healed and the person is living life in a whole and consistent manner.
What I like about Dallas Willard’s model is the relational aspect. From this perspective genuine healing occurs in every dimension of life. The person is able to engage in authentic, genuinely appropriate intimate attachments with God, with other people, with himself or herself, and with the world. Only when healing reaches every aspect of life at its deepest level can we truly say that a person is healed. Obviously this raises questions about the depth at which a person is able to achieve healing. I would be quick to say that I am not talking about perfection, but rather a state of continual submission to the vision of whom we are called to be, bringing every arena of life under the authority of that vision. As powerful, and as necessary, as crisis experiences may be spiritually, they are simply insufficient to facilitate this level of change. This change must be lived out on a daily basis.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC
There’s been much in the news lately about whether sexual addiction is a real addiction, or just bad behavior. Here’s a quick response:
A classic (and rather simple) definition of addiction is that it is continuing in a behavior despite known negative consequences. However, in August, 2011, The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) released a new definition of addiction highlighting that addiction is a chronic brain disorder and not simply a behavioral problem involving too much alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex. This new definition was the result of an intensive, four-year process with more than 80 experts actively working on it, including top addiction authorities, addiction medicine clinicians and leading neuroscience researchers from across the country.
What is important to note here is that both substance AND process addictions are included in ASAM’s definition of addiction, and they have included sex in their list of addictions along with gambling.
I would also point to some of the more prominent ways scholars have explained the origins of sexual addiction.
A Brain Disease
Our brains learn to act in certain ways and to crave certain things (Chocolate). The addict’s brain can become “hijacked” to the point they can look at something and know beyond any doubt “This is bad, This will get me in trouble,” and do it anyway. The pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for emotional regulation and decision-making shuts down when an addict is craving his/her drug of choice.
An Intimacy Disorder
Addicts have a flawed sense of self. The Core Beliefs of an addict are:
(1) I am a bad unworthy person
(2) If people really knew me, they would reject me.
(3) If my emotional, physical, relational needs are going to be met, I have to take care of that myself.
(4) Sex is my most important need.
As a result of such faulty core beliefs, it becomes almost impossible to be securely attached to another person. In place of attachment to another persona in a healthy way, the addict becomes “attached” to the addiction. It is the “old familiar friend” who always provides some form of connection… artificial though it may be.
A Problem of Attention
Addiction and what we call Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is amazingly similar. I’m reminded of the dog in the animated film Up. Doug had trouble staying focused. “Squirrel!” Addiction seeks novelty and thrives in fantasy. The next (high, meal, sexual encounter, spending spree, etc.) will be the best and will fill the longing in my heart. The sex addict is always scanning for its next diversion, the next partner to hook up with, the next person to fantasize about, etc.
A Maladaptive Response to Stress
Addicts use their addiction to avoid dealing with the stresses of life. All of us have some trauma in our past. Addicts dwell on their addiction, as opposed to dealing with the problem. There is a dissociative element to addiction. Addicts get “lost” in their fantasy, lost in their behavior. And to the addict, it is better than thinking about reality.
A Family Disease
Addiction serves a function in families. It becomes a way to relate to one another person. It has a genetic component (it is partly Nature). The role of modeling is huge as well, so it is partly Nurture. A very high percentage (some say as high as 97%) of sex addicts come from homes in which the parents are rigid (too many rules) and emotionally disengaged.
Is this definitive? For the person how is convinced it is only bad behavior this isn’t enough. But there is science behind each of the theories I have listed here. For more information I encourage you to check out https://gentlepath.com/
Or, view a three-part interview with Dr. Patrick Carnes, international expert on the treatment of sexual addiction.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC
Spirituality will either help, or hinder, the process of change. How it effects the change process is complex. Answers vary widely according to the perspective of the person giving the answer. (Just Google “Spirituality and Change” to see what I mean.) So as I begin to address this question I should first of all identify my assumptions.
Assumption #1: Every person is a spiritual being. We all have a spiritual nature. For some, this is acknowledged and well developed. In others, the spiritual dimension of his/her life appears to lay dormant. Call it what you will, the imago dei, the human spirit, creative urge, etc. We are all spiritual beings.
Assumption #2: There is a God who is Personal, Knowable, and has Revealed Himself to us. Yes, I am a Christian. I say this not in a dogmatic “I’m right you’re wrong manner,” but as a statement of my faith and my identity.
Assumption #3: Every person either embraces his or her own spirituality, or rejects it. The theory of social constructivism tells is that we are all products of our environment. Part, of the answer to why some are more “spiritually in tune” than others is that it has been fostered within her or his life and reinforced by events, choices, and behaviors.
Assumption #4: Everything we do either contributes to our spiritual growth or detracts. My doctoral studies focused on how we grow spiritually. One of the fundamental principles of spiritual formation is that everything we do shapes us, either positively or negatively. So from that perspective we are always changing. When a person chooses to act in a manner consistent with his or her peers, there is a willing participation in allowing that behavior to shape them…either positively or negatively.
What does all this mean?
So how does spirituality facilitate the process of change? Since the topic is so broad, a few general statements will have to do.
First. Change is evitable, but growth is optional. How do you define what it means to be healthy? Part of the challenge of change is knowing what kind of change to strive for. What does it really mean to be healthy? Many people simply want the pain of life to stop but lack a clear sense of direction in life. I define health in terms of wholeness. I conceptualize that wholeness in terms of five core dimensions: Mental, Emotional, Physical, Social, and Spiritual (MEPSS). Growth demands a plan to address each of those five areas with specific goals in mind of what I want to accomplish. Do you have a plan for what you want your life to look like? Is it holistic, in the sense that it addresses more than just problem solving strategies?
Second. Positive change is not automatic. Being intentional is essential. One of my professors in my undergraduate program used to talk about the man who “jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions.” Without a map, without a goal, we have no criteria by which to judge whether our behavior is healthy and constructive or destructive. Remember everything you do either contributes to your spiritual well being, or detracts from it. Closely related to this is what determines your map. For the Christian, the Bible serves as the final arbiter of Truth. Admittedly, interpretations of what this means in everyday life are legion. The point is…we need a map we can trust.
Third. Fostering the spiritual dimension gives is that sense of direction. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, wrote of four tests to help determine what was genuinely true. To verify something as true and good it must be Scriptural. Secondly, it must have historical precedent. If you are the first person in the history of the Judean-Christian belief system to come up with this idea…check your facts. Third, it must reflect sound reason. And lastly, does it feel right, or does our experience back it up? Unfortunately, in our culture, experience has taken the lead for many in terms of determining truth. In our postmodern world, we tend to look within first, and often ignore the other possible tests of truth. But here’s the challenge. If we have a Scriptural, historically based, reasonable grasp of what we believe to be the right way to live our lives, and if experience backs that up (that it feels right in our hearts) we have a good map.
Spiritual exercises for growth:
There are numerous ways to respond to this topic as well, so I must be brief.
The classic spiritual disciplines have been around for centuries for a reason. They produce results. Dallas Willard’s writings remind us that those disciplines are not things we do to try to convince God that we are good and that He should therefore give us what we want. Rather, they are formative. He uses the analogy of the surgeon who practices sewing sutures, or the athlete who practices his or her craft until they can do what they do as a natural motion. Peyton Manning has felt the football in his hand so many times he does not have to stop and think, “Now how do I hold this ball so that I can through a perfect pass?” It comes naturally. When we practice the spiritual disciplines consistently, so too does our Christian living. That brings a certain degree of peace and comfort to the struggles of life. That helps bring clarity to our sense of direction and gives us a purpose. Within that type of life we find security. Willard writes about living life in one direction…the mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual aspects of our lives directed toward one single purpose. That is focus; that is health. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about Level One and Level Two thinking (Blink). Level Two thinking is the automatic thinking that occurs when something becomes second nature. This is what Dallas Willard is writing about with regard to the value of consistent practice of the spiritual disciplines.
The very mention of Mindfulness practices strikes fear in the hearts and minds of many Christian because of its eastern roots. Not to fear my friends. Mindfulness has deep roots in Christian literature as well. Increasing our awareness, meditating on Scripture, dwelling in God’s presence in a spiritual sense, are all examples of mindful practices. (Read the classic The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence for a primer on Christian mindfulness.) A multitude of studies have demonstrated health benefits to mindfulness practices. Check out the writing of Jon Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living) or Alan Marlatt’s work on Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (www.mindfulrp.com/) for more information on the value of mindfulness from a mental health perspective.
We’ve only just scratched the surface of this topic. More to come.
See you soon.
Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC
In my last post I noted that the ability to facilitate change in people’s lives was a key factor in helping me decide to become a professional counselor. As promised, here’s more about change.
Since the 70’s counseling and psychology has thought of change in terms of Stages, Levels, and Processes of Change. This is a result of the work of James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. There are many fine descriptions of their model of change on the Internet. I highly recommend the post, Stages of Change Model at AddictionInfo.org.
To quickly summarize the Stages of Change:
Precontemplation is best described in terms of denial. Here the person rejects the idea that he or she has a problem. (A common reaction for me when my doctor talks to me about my cholesterol.)
The person in the Contemplation stage admits there is a problem, but is not ready to do anything about it. (Yes, I see the numbers from my most recent blood work, but I enjoy my red meat and cheesecake.)
When a person reaches the Preparation stage, a plan is put in place. (Sometime within the next thirty days I will begin eating more healthy foods, fewer unhealthy foods and start exercising…perish the thought!)
The Action stage is just what it sounds like…the person has put his or her plan into action. (Does reaching for another donut constitute exercise?)
Once a change is initiated, Maintenance becomes important. As the name implies, the individual is staying on the plan, continuing to “maintain” the desired change.
Most addiction specialists will include Relapse as a normal part of the Stages of Change Model. I understand this from an addictions perspective. The fact is, I can’t think of a single addict I have worked with as a counselor who did not relapse at some point in the journey to recovery. The point is not whether one relapses or not. The point is when one relapses, what does the person do? Success is measured in the ability to bounce back and resume the journey toward recovery.
Then there are the Levels of Change.
The levels refer to the depth of change in a person’s life. Achieving change at the deeper levels is likely to be slower and more complex. However, change at deeper levels is hopefully also more lasting.
The Symptom level deals with surface level behavioral change. Situational problems are changed in some way…hopefully for the better. (The smoker stops smoking.)
The Maladaptive cognitions level deals with the way the person thinks about the desired change and his/her place in relation to the change. Denial ceases, and desire for health and wholeness ensues.
Level three deals with Interpersonal conflicts. The fact that 40% of change accounted for happens outside of the therapy office and often as a result of the person’s primary support systems and points to the need to change the way the person interacts with others (a topic for another post).
Family/systems conflicts begin to be resolved in the fourth level. Here it is not just the “identified patient” that changes, the family changes to support and maintain the change.
Intrapersonal conflicts point to the deepest level of change and may refer to what Freud and others identified as unconscious levels. This is the deepest and most lasting level of change.
And lastly, there are the Processes of Change.
Processes are the things we do to help facilitate change. There are a multitude of things counselors and others do to facilitate and maintain change. A good list of processes, as well as another great overview of this model of change can be found at Detailed Overview of the Transtheoretical Model.
So what does all this mean?
The Stages, Levels, and Processes all interact with one another in the life of the person seeking change. Many efforts to accomplish change fail because there is a mis-match of processes with stages. For example, urine screenings (part of a contingency management process for drug addicts) are much more effective and appropriate for a person who is at an Action stage than for a person in a Precontemplation stage.
Also, it is essential for therapist and client to agree on what kind of change is sought. Being eager and hopeful I am prone to “go for the gusto” and seek the deepest level of change (intrapersonal). However, the client may have a much more practical desire. One client was very helpful when he said, “I don’t want to know the meaning of life. I just want to know how to get along with my wife.” Here was a person seeking level three change. To get there we focused on behaviors (the Symptom Level) and faulty ways of thinking (Maladaptive Cognitions) to enable him to relate to his spouse more effectively (Interpersonal Conflicts).
Thirdly, there is a spiritual aspect to facilitating this kind of change. Which will have to wait for my next post.
See you Soon,
Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC
People occasionally ask why I am a professional counselor. That’s a really tough question to answer quickly…but here goes.
In 1982 I graduated from Nazarene Theological Seminary with a Masters in Divinity. I hauled my few belongings, my wife, and our new baby to southern Kentucky to begin work as a pastor. For over 21 years I encountered the joys and sorrows of marriages and divorces, births and deaths, and numerous other individual and family events. It was never boring.
In the last church I served as a pastor, I encountered marriages that were struggling, addictions of various sorts, individuals with legal problems, and people resistant to change both personally and organizationally…all within the first few weeks. I told myself I needed to enhance my skills as a pastor, so I began taking some counseling classes at Cincinnati Bible Seminary (part of what is now called Cincinnati Christian University). Soon, I found my self sitting with individuals who had marriage problems, emotional turmoil as a result of births and deaths, and numerous other life events. I asked myself, how is this different from what I have been doing for two decades? But then I noticed something.
People were changing. Not because I had all the answers, but something else was happening. Relationships were developing. Learning was taking place. Change occurred. Soon I began reflecting on 20 years of pastoral ministry and noticed the changes I was privileged to witness within the lives of my clients were different from those within my churches. The rate of change and the level of change were of much more significance in counseling than what had happened in pastoral ministry. (We planted two churches, built two buildings, and saw some wonderful things happen while in pastoral ministry so it was not without “success.”) But what was happening in counseling was happening faster, and the changes were deeper. That told me, counseling was were I wanted to be. Why? Because I believe God uses counseling to effect change in people’s lives.
Researchers tell us that three things are important in considering how change occurs. Stages of change refer to where the person is in terms of readiness to change. Processes of change are the things we do to facilitate change. Levels of change tell us something about the depth of change in a person’s life. In a future post I‘ll discuss how I believe God (and the Christian counselor) work together to facilitate change in a person’s life from these three perspectives.
Tim Barber LPCC-S, CSAT-S, NCC