How we respond to both pleasure and pain is ruled by the limbic system, the part of the brain involved in motivation, emotion, learning and memory, and that’s ultimately responsible for our self-preservation. It is what helps us develop coping mechanisms, which are a means of defeating or evading physical, mental or emotional discomfort using memories of what has worked in the past.
Addiction exploits the limbic system, training the brains of young men to cope with fear, anger, or loneliness through drugs and alcohol.
If, as the loved one of an addict, you have ever wondered why he won’t choose to stop—why he can’t make the obvious decision to stop hurting himself, his family, and jeopardizing his future—the answer is that it isn’t a choice he’s making at all. His limbic system demands that he cope with stimuli that feel like a threat to his self-preservation with the only thing that has ever worked with any consistency: drugs and alcohol.
We believe change begins with building new connections between a patient’s outer physical world and their inner mental-emotional world.
Our experiential leader John, a professional free-diving and spearfishing instructor trainer and well-seasoned ocean-man, begins every rock-walk challenge in the pool with a review of safety and rescue basics. Safety helps to ground each man in the reality of what he’s about to do. Though patients will perceive the challenge in their own unique way, every man is equipped with the same tools to move through it.
Rock-walking is a rich and powerful experiential activity that challenges both the body and mind. The men are divided into teams and each man takes his turn dropping to the bottom of the pool to pick up a 40 lb weight and carry it as many steps as he can towards the back wall. When he can go no further he returns to the surface and one of his teammates takes a turn.
It’s easy to underestimate the challenge. Out of the water, most grown men would have no problem carrying a 40 lb weight. Underwater is an entirely different story, and an all-out assault on a man’s limbic system.
Each man goes under water with a single breath and whatever emotional weight he’s carrying with him that day. Whatever thoughts or feelings are swirling inside him, the physical challenge of rock walking amplifies them and brings them to the surface.
After only a few seconds underwater your limbic system, that fist-sized mass of electrocharged grey cells, starts cueing up panic. In its utter intolerance of discomfort and irrepressible desire to survive, your limbic system screams at you to call it quits—you can’t do this! it says. You’re not strong enough! it tells you. You need to quit! it shouts.
This is how the limbic system reacts to stress. Put simply, it overwhelms your consciousness with certainty of failure or danger, and demands that you cope using whatever will end the discomfort the fastest and most reliably. In the pool that means returning to the surface, but back in a man’s hometown, his automatic reaction to stress is to isolate and get high.
“You’re way more powerful than you think you are,” John says of our men rising to the challenge of rock-walking.
When a man first arrives at the Voyage house, he’s often withdrawn and reserved, aggressive and defensive, and his spirit and confidence are in shambles. He’s probably also being dogged by a self-defeating inner dialogue that’s relentlessly chirping away at him. This voice tells him he has failed, that he has disappointed everyone he loves, and that he is hopeless and worthless.
In active addiction, a man will cope with that pain or discomfort by getting high because his brain has learned that this is the fastest and most reliable way to end his discomfort. But here at our house, surrounded by other men in early recovery and our clinical team, that old standby is no longer an option.
In groups we begin by checking in on the men’s first thoughts and feelings as they woke up, and gradually move through the day until we get to the present moment. It becomes a daily mental journal, a habit of daily self-evaluation of thoughts, feelings and experiences that connects a man’s inner world to his outer world.
How does our brain respond to fear, anger or sadness and how do we cope with this feeling?
By learning how to examine himself, particularly when he’s feeling poorly, a man begins to understand his triggers and pain points, and to determine when he needs to reach out for help. Practicing how to slow down and and mentally assess his day helps him to more fully understand his discomfort, and adds a contrasting narrative to the dark little voice of the limbic system.
Despite all the stressors and triggers present in the pool, and despite how natural it is for a man’s limbic system to jump into overdrive, the men keep their heads. They fall back on their safety training and diving basics; they remember that they’re here with their brothers, that these other men won’t let anything happen.
By focusing on the experience of rock-walking in our process groups, the men of Voyage learn that the impulses of their limbic system can be challenged with patience, introspection, practice, and fellowship.
Practice makes progress
The nature of treatment at Voyage is that our men have opportunities to practice healthy coping mechanisms every day in every context imaginable—during experiential, in process groups, in family sessions, back at the house, and while off-campus at twelve-step meetings. It’s through this constant reinforcement of healthy behaviors and attitudes, especially relying on a support community when thoughts and feelings are overwhelming, that men lay a foundation of healing and recovery.
Our groups are a crucial first step towards a man’s future reliance on support groups and sponsors to help him handle bad news and hard days. For our men, it shows them that they can create a community of brothers in recovery to count on for support, and that they too can be valued and trusted members of that group.
Voyage Recovery Center helps young adult men struggling with substance use disorders, and their families, find lasting healing and meaningful recovery. Our approach is a unique and specialized combination of time-tested therapy and innovative experiential programming designed to help men shift their perspective and reconnect with themselves and each other. We help our families through every step of this process, from the first consultation, through weekly calls and family sessions, to comprehensive continuing care planning and beyond.
Like our rock walks, it doesn’t matter how fast you go as long as you keep going. Voyage is the beginning of a lifelong journey of recovery, and a road that’s better travelled with brothers. Call us to find out if you or someone you care about is right for Voyage (772) 245-8345.