Conflict Addiction and Emotional Sobriety:
In an early issue of the AA Grapevine (January 1958) Bill W. co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, addressed the problem of what he called a lack of emotional sobriety in long-time members of AA. People who are technically sober in that they no longer drink or use may still be emotionally intoxicated or drunk on their own biochemistry. This article is for people who use conflict to stay emotionally intoxicated. It explains what conflict addiction is, how it begins, and what can happen if the addictive behavior does not stop.
W.B. Cannon first proposed the existence of an emergency readiness response in 1915. This automatic fight or flight reaction of the sympathetic nervous system is the biological foundation for the alarm stage of Hans Selye's general adaptation syndrome. This high arousal state is meant to last only a short period of time. For people raised in the chaotic atmosphere of a troubled, dysfunctional family, a state of alarm or hyper-vigilance is usually a chronic state.
Tony A., co-founder of Adult Children of Alcoholics, wrote in "The Laundry List" that Adult Children are addicted to excitement. The narrative version of the List, "The Problem", says Adult Children become addicted to excitement in all their affairs, "preferring constant upset to workable relationships." This addiction to drama or negative excitement (frustration, fear, anger, rage, anguish, dread, despair, euphoria) is intoxicating and knocks out the capacity to fully register pleasure and pain and to think clearly, both of which are needed to make rational decisions. At first the ability to adequately think and feel returns briefly after the emotionally intoxicated person comes down or crashes and then sobers up. Eventually it may not return at all.
This cycle of endogenous (internal) addiction is the same as an external chemical dependency because negatively exciting thoughts and behaviors are used to trigger the release of biochemicals from what has been called the inside pharmacy. Just as people use alcohol and other drugs, our own biochemistry may be manipulated to bring about stimulation and arousal, sedation and inhibition, analgesia (stress-induced analgesia) and thought regulation (stop, start, focus). The family practice of using chaos, confusion and conflict to distract and escape from reality, internalized in childhood and adolescence, continues into adulthood and the cycle is thereby perpetuated.
Optimal arousal of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system for emergency responding is designed to bring about a quick resolution to threatening situations. Young children who believe or know they are endangered by unresponsive or out-of-control adults cannot overcome or overpower the people around them nor can they leave the people on whom they depend. They learn to stay on red alert and gain temporary relief through distraction and denial. Their only escape from the chaos and confusion is to repeat the family pattern of endlessly cycling up and down between the extremes of emotional intoxication and compensatory collapse.
L.B. Hollingsworth, in a 1973 book, Adrenaline: The Key to Your Behavior, wrote that "human beings who have been conditioned to need conflict...find themselves in the position of having to create their own strife." Jim Grigsby, in writing about Vietnam veterans, called this phenomenon "combat rush." M.K. Toomim, in a number of articles on biofeedback-directed therapy, observed that physiological measurements of people in a charged-up state do not necessarily provide evidence of emotional upset and high arousal. Frequently their hand temperature, which usually drops in periods of alarm, will paradoxically rise, and sweat gland activity, which usually rises, will paradoxically drop. Normally, warm dry hands indicate a person is calm and relaxed. In the case of paradoxical responding the opposite is true. The nervous system tries to hold back full-bore emergency arousal to prevent the person from blowing a gasket. Toomim likened the paradoxical response to going ninety miles per hour with the brake on. Eventually something has to give, and usually does in the form of neurotransmitter dysregulation, organ damage, physical breakdown and psychosomatic illness.
Bill W. wrote that he believed the next frontier in recovery would be emotional sobriety. With what we have learned about recovery since 1958, it is now possible to use the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions to enter into and explore the next frontier. If you are having difficulty with continuous, unresolved conflict and would like to withdraw from emotional intoxication, we invite you to join us.