Most Saturdays, some friends and I take a 12-step meeting to the main detox/addiction treatment ward at a local psychiatric hospital. While I sometimes struggle to get myself over there on a Saturday evening, the gratitude and internal rewards I receive from spending just 60 minutes talking with fellow alcoholics and addicts at the very beginning of their sobriety journeys is priceless.
Meeting with these patients reminds me how I felt after I hit bottom and struggled to imagine living sober. My life had revolved around drinking for so long, it seemed the only normal way to live.
Below is one of my favorite lines from the 12-step literature we frequently read in meetings, which I shared with the detox patients last night:
“The people of A.A. had something that looked much better than what I had, but I was afraid to let go of what I had in order to try something new; there was a certain sense of security in the familiar.”
-Anonymous, “Acceptance was the Answer,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Ed., p. 416 (emphasis added)
Conflicting fears: staying stuck vs. creating change
Fears are funny creatures. Over the past five years, I’ve discovered that I frequently have conflicting fears. Early in sobriety, I was terrified of relapsing. I was also scared of staying sober!
Here’s another conflicting fear duo I’ve experienced and worked on with coaching clients: Fear of being single and fear of being in a relationship.
What’s the deal with our fears combating each other? If I know something is killing me – like alcohol – I should fear relapse only, not sobriety, right?
While that seems logical, our human brains do not always function logically. We can know deep down that we desire change, change is necessary, and we have tools and resources to help us, yet we still fear the positive change itself.
Why do we fear positive changes?
As humans, we default to what is familiar, easy, and pleasurable. We are hard-wired to seek pleasure and conserve energy. These defaults ensure human survival: sex is pleasurable to result in procreation and community; eating delicious, calorie-dense foods fuels our bodies for the next famine or for sprinting away from tigers; vegging out, sleeping, and relaxing restore and rejuvenate our bodies (and rest them for fleeing the tigers). However, in modern day, food is so plentiful that most of us want to eat less, people live longer and certain areas are over-populated, and we don’t need to carb-load or rest up to run from tigers.
Even though our current reality differs vastly from cave days, our brains’ inherent wiring hasn’t evolved to account for our modern external circumstances. We still default to the easy and pleasurable, even when it harms us.
Because pleasure and ease drive us, we may interpret familiarity as comfort and ease, even when the familiar is fatal. Our amygdala or “cave brain” resists what is not familiar (the new, positive change), even though the rational part of our brains – the prefrontal cortex – intellectually knows the change would benefit us. When a response is so deeply engrained that it’s our automatic or default response, the amygdala prefers staying in default. Rewiring the mind’s habitual paths takes time, especially when we’ve traveled the default trail countless times.
After drinking so prolifically over many years, my brain defaulted to drinking as a (fatal) habit. I’d created a very deep rut in my brain, and it ran straight to the bottle. As I struggled to climb out of the rut, my brain sabotaged me because it was comfortable in the drinking rut. It may have been dark, dirty, and deadly, but it was familiar. It was the devil I knew.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but my subconscious knew the outcome of picking up a drink. It was a familiar cycle, which I mistook for comfortable and easy. By contrast, I did not know what would happen if I stopped drinking and [gasp] stayed stopped. I feared the unknown, seemingly uncomfortable path.
Thankfully, over time, my deeply entrenched default drinking rut has been filled in, paved over, and I walk a healthier path today. It didn’t happen overnight, and I did not do it (and still do not do it) alone.
Here are some tools I learned while getting sober, which I still apply to overcoming fear of change:
Ask for help. I called my best friend when I hit bottom and admitted I needed help. She was the first of many people to hold my hand along my sobriety journey, and I still reach out for help today. Whatever change you want to make, you don’t have to do it alone.
Keep it small and simple. Ease your cave brain into change. Take it “one day at a time.”
Stay Present. The cave brain will imagine crazy scenarios to keep you stuck and comfortable in your rut. When you notice your mind awful-izing or future-tripping, bring it back to the present moment. (Remember: one day at a time.) Focusing on your breath will automatically reground you in your body and present environment. Click the button below for a deep breathing exercise to help you return to the present.
Acknowledge your little wins. Congratulate yourself for each little step forward and sign of progress. Little changes add up to big results!