The spaced-out junkie with needle marks up and down both arms and legs, the wino on skid row, the foodoholic who can't get through the day without his coffee and candy bars — all these negative images are conjured up at the mention of the word "addict." But there are habits — and yes, addictions — that we might all do well to cultivate.
As Thoreau put it, most people live "lives of quiet desperation" punctuated by occasional periods of happiness, ecstasy, delight and joy. It's only rarely that you come across someone who is really "high on life" — who deeply enjoys and savors every experience, who seems to perpetually live in the present moment. Instead, most of us slog through our daily existence trying to avoid as much pain as possible, rarely rising above the routine. And for some of us, the pain — physical or emotional — is overwhelming. When it becomes extremely difficult to cope, there is a real temptation to take any easy way out. And when fast and pleasant relief is available in the form of a needle or a pill or a quick drink, such relief can quickly become a desperate need. But pain of all kinds is a fact of life for many of us — yet not everybody ends up an addict or on skid row. Why are some people so much more readily "hooked" than others? Researchers believe that a metabolic factor, such as lack of a certain chemical in the body, can predispose an individual to a particular kind of addiction. It has been speculated that just as a diabetic needs insulin, so an addict needs his or her own particular missing chemical or hormone, and will accept any substitute that alleviates the pain. But wouldn't it be fine if addiction-prone people could somehow figure out what their bodies were missing, and work on supplying that element, rather than ingesting some artificial substitute? And wouldn't it be great if "normal" people living ordinary lives were able to feel delight and joy on a regular, daily basis without resorting to chemicals? And what if there were forms of addiction that strengthened one's body and character rather than destroying them?
Getting "High" Nature's Way
Actually there are ways to bring about drug like "highs" without resorting to chemicals — at least chemicals like alcohol or cocaine or pot or speed. And they don't violate the Protestant work ethic, either, because to get such highs one has to work and work hard at it. For those of us who are "into" natural foods and holistic medicine and organic everything, the following knowledge will be extremely comforting: The human brain manufactures its own narcotics. The very organ most addicts are trying to deaden makes its own drugs, the way God designed it to. These drugs do the same things regular drugs do, only more effectively and without a hangover. They can mollify pain, cause pleasant feelings of wellbeing, and even wipe out anxiety and induce euphoria. Researchers have discovered that the brain has many tiny "drug" receptors which are stimulated by the presence of either the body's own chemicals, or if one indulges, by manmade drugs such as morphine (Richard Restak, "The Brain Makes Its Own Narcotics!," Saturday Review, March 5, 1977). These receptors are located in the limbic system, a part of the brain which deals with pain and emotion. And pain and emotional distress are the two factors indicated in every case of addiction. Dr. Avram Goldstein, professor of pharmacology at Stanford University and director of the Addiction Research Foundation in Palo Alto, California, believes that addicts may be taking narcotics "in order to overcome an inborn deficiency in the natural `drugs' produced by the body." Scientists are now working to either synthesize such "drugs" or find out how to turn on the body's own production of these substances in order to treat addiction and certain forms of mental illness. But in the meantime, there are other ways to bring about the same results. Hong Kong neurosurgeon Dr. Wen Hsiang-lai has discovered an unusual but highly effective method of causing the body to make its own drugs. He uses acupuncture, that staple of traditional Chinese medicine, to treat heroin addicts. His treatment (which consists of running a 12-volt or lower current through a small needle inserted in the concha — the cuplike outer portion of the ear above the lobe) causes his patients to experience an absence of withdrawal symptoms in a matter of minutes. The electric current apparently stimulates a cranial nerve which signals the brain to produce a chemical which addicts are lacking. Preliminary tests show that his method worked for at least 51 percent of a group of heroin addicts who were free of the drug habit a year after the experiment ended, compared to 28.5 percent of a control group who were dosed with the traditional methadone used as a heroin substitute in the U.S. and Britain.
The Running Habit
But there is another more mundane way by which those of us who have no access to research programs or Hong Kong acupuncturists can get ourselves into drug production: by running. Yes, plain old running. If you run or jog regularly enough, and long enough each session, there is a good possibility you'll reach an extremely pleasant mental state that many running addicts experience and have only recently begun to talk about. (Some researchers believe that such feelings of euphoria result from an increase in the chemical epinephrine in the bloodstream, which causes a measurable drop in anxiety) John Griest of the University of Wisconsin found running more effective than traditional psychotherapy in treating abnormally depressed patients. And Dr. Kenneth Cooper, author of The New Aerobics, also finds it useful in relieving anxiety: "... exercise is a natural relaxant. This alone is highly beneficial in many clinical conditions. The reduction of anxiety through exercise also is helpful in treating some patients with emotional problems" (p. 127). And Dr. William Glasser of the Institute for Reality Therapy has come up with a concept which he calls "positive addiction," the title of his latest book. He believes individuals can build strength of character through seeking out and finding their own particular natural high. Through his research he has found that the two most common methods of achieving a positive addiction are running and the less strenuous but less sure method of meditation — not spiritual meditation, but a form of conscious relaxation in which the image-oriented right half of the brain is allowed to function dominantly, in contrast to the verbal problem-solving left hemisphere of the brain which is usually in charge during our waking hours. This unleashes all sorts of creativity, much the same way that ideas "come to one while shaving." It also seems to induce the brain to produce the desired chemical balance.
Glasser gives six steps to achieving positive addiction: "... a positive addiction can be anything at all that a person chooses to do as long as it fulfills the following six criteria: (1) It is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote an hour (approximately) a day to it. (2) It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn't take a great deal of mental effort to do it well. (3) You can do it alone or rarely with others but it does not depend upon others to do it. (4) You believe that it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you. (5) You believe that if you persist at it you will improve, but this is completely subjective — you need to be the only one who measures that improvement. (6) The activity must have the quality that you can do it without criticizing yourself. If you can't accept yourself during this time the activity will not be addicting. This is why it is so important that the activity can be done alone. Any time you introduce other people you chance introducing competition or criticism, often both" (Positive Addiction, p. 93). While the most popular way of getting positively addicted seems to be running or jogging, some people have achieved this state through such diverse activities as swinging a baseball bat, singing, or listening to music.
Reaching a state of positive addiction through exercising the body is not really all that unbelievable. The mind and the body are one and the same interrelated system. As George Leonard writes in his book The Ultimate Athlete: "It is only through a heresy in Western thought that we could consider any aspect of life as 'nonphysical'. The body is always involved, even in what we call the most cerebral pursuit. Einstein tells us that the Special or Restricted Theory of Relativity came from a feeling in his muscles" (p. 189). The twin scourges of boredom and chronic depression can also be alleviated by a regular exercise program. Dr. Kenneth Cooper states that "in their domestic lives, women often become the victims of routine. Many of them lack the challenges that men face in their work.... Aerobics has proved to be a turning point in the lives of many such women. Getting on the program marks for them the point of a new departure. They shed boredom and become alert and responsive again. The vitality women gain from upgrading their fitness sometimes opens the door to many other interests, giving their whole existence new meaning" (The New Aerobics, p. 143). Such a form of positive addiction has other beneficial side effects. Minor aches and pains and irritating conditions are often improved once the body is in a really vibrant, healthy, dynamic (not just un-sick) condition. And flabby muscles can lead to more than just being unable to open jar lids without help. George Leonard writes that: "More than 6 million people in the United States are treated for some sort of backache every day, and back trouble is the greatest single drain on industrial compensation funds; estimates of the cost to the nation run up to $10 billion a year. Yet, the great majority of back problems are caused simply by flabby muscles, especially those of the abdomen which are needed to hold the pelvis straight and thus reduce strain on the muscles of the lower back. A balanced physical-activity program, taking only a few hours a week, would doubtless eliminate most back ailments. Sufferers turn instead to drugs, heating pads, and doctors' appointments" (The Ultimate Athlete, p. 154). But what if you're one of Dr. Cooper's victims of domestic routine (or office fatigue), yet don't feel comfortable and safe trotting up and down the streets of your neighborhood? What if dogs and smart-aleck kids and staring motorists all but imprison you inside your four walls? For you, Cooper's book includes a variety of indoor aerobic exercises such as stationary running, skipping rope, climbing stairs, stationary cycling, and running on treadmills. (The word "aerobic" was coined by Dr. Cooper and means exercise that improves the condition of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Most conventional forms of exercise such as games like volleyball, calisthenics, gardening and even housework do not stimulate the body long enough or steadily enough to produce beneficial changes in circulation and oxygen usage. And even exercises like walking and jogging must be done very regularly to achieve the desired cardiovascular fitness) Last July The Plain Truth ran an article by Harry Sneider, executive fitness director at Ambassador College, outlining the many benefits of regular exercise. The article also contained cautions on beginning a program, such as checking with your personal physician before beginning a regimen. The New Aerobics also carries the same warning, including the fact that you should progress slowly, exercise only within your tolerance, warm up properly and cool down slowly afterwards. And strenuously exercising only on weekends can be more harmful than no exercise at all. It should be done at least four times a week.
A Positive "Fix"
Many if not most of us are addicted to one thing or another, even though we may not recognize it. Human beings just seem to operate that way. Even people who aren't dependent on any chemical may become addicted to certain emotions, such as the "high" associated with a love affair. They may pursue conquest after conquest in order to get their regular emotional "fix." (Just as chemicals in the brain can affect emotion, certain emotions can cause various chemicals to be produced. Anger stimulating adrenalin production is a common example of this process) So as long as we're going to be addicts, we may as well opt to be the positive variety. As Glasser mentions in his book, people who are positively addicted are stronger emotionally and better able to cope with whatever curves life throws them. They're able to wait out crises and withstand pain to a much greater degree than those without such regular habits. You may have to search and experiment to find out exactly which "positive addiction" fits your own particular needs and lifestyle, but the search is well worth it in terms of health and mental satisfaction.
ADDITIONAL READING The New Aerobics by Kenneth H. Cooper, Bantam Books, 1976. Aerobics for Women by Mildred Cooper and Kenneth H. Cooper, Bantam Books, 1977. Positive Addiction by William Glasser, Harper and Row, 1976.