Belief Is Not Fact – Do you Believe Drugs and Alcohol Have Power?
Belief In Overcoming Addiction: Beliefs can be incredibly powerful, in ways you’d never expect. Take placebo studies for example. In one study, asthmatic patients were told to inhale a mist that contained the very allergens which trigger attacks for them. Most of the patients went into full blown asthmatic reactions. The rub? They had inhaled a harmless saline mist which contained no allergens whatsoever. The test subjects had asthma attacks because they believed they would, and they stopped those attacks when they breathed from another inhaler that they were told contained a potent medicine. Again, the supposed medicine was the same harmless saline mist!
How do we know that what we’ve learned from our culture about the causes of substance use and the effects of drugs and alcohol is true? Are our beliefs worth challenging? Have our expectations been manipulated like the asthmatics in the example above? When you modify or see through a belief, your entire world can change, so it is our position that these beliefs are worth a closer look. To help you understand the facts associated with the power of drugs and alcohol, we’re going to present some common beliefs about substance use, as well as information that calls those beliefs into question.
Questionable Belief #1: You Can’t Solve A Substance Use Problem On Your Own (without lifelong treatment and/or support group involvement)
This is perhaps the most absurd claim pushed by our recovery culture. Reliable wide-scale studies have routinely shown that the vast majority of people with substance use problems inevitably change their habits for the better without ever seeking formal help – 75% to be exact. Of the remaining 25% who changed and had sought help at some point, not all of them got the kind of treatment/support regimen which we’re told is necessary (specialty addiction treatment followed up with ongoing lifelong 12-step involvement). Only 17% have ever been exposed to both specialty treatment and 12-step meetings. [Dawson]
But wait, it gets smaller! Those support groups teach that you need to be involved with them for the rest of your life or else you’re headed for “jails, institutions, or death”. Despite the dire warnings though, 95% of the people who enter these groups stop attending within (far) less than a year. This means that only 5% of the 17% of the total, or .85% of people who successfully change their drinking problems probably do it with “ongoing treatment and support”. That’s less than 1%. So much for the myth of needing ongoing support! [AA Triennial Survey]
Does anyone else find it strange that we let these people – less than 1% of all Americans who solve their substance use problems – tell the rest of us that it’s the only way to get over this problem?!
For every successful person that stays stuck in the recovery culture, there are literally at least 99 more that successfully move on with their lives, not as “recovering addicts”, but rather as individuals living the lifestyle that makes them happy, and is not defined by past problems.
Substance Induced Behavioral Change
We put a lot of stock in the pharmacological power of drugs and alcohol. It’s common to believe that substances do everything from giving people courage, impairing motor skills, and increasing artistic ability, to causing violent behavior as well as rape and infidelity. Substances supposedly do all of this as a function of their chemical action on the brain. But is our faith in the chemical power of intoxicating substances undeserved? Yes, it is.
Let’s consider our placebo example again. It wasn’t the presence of allergens that triggered the asthmatic reactions – it was simply the belief that what came out of the inhaler would indeed cause an asthmatic reaction. Could beliefs be in play with the effects of intoxicating substances? You bet. In fact, there are placebo studies involving alcohol. In one, the study subjects completed a psychomotor test, and then they were asked to predict how much slower they would perform on the same test after drinking alcohol. Then they were given drinks that contained either real or fake (placebo) alcohol, and asked to complete the test again. No matter whether they drank the real thing or not, their performance on the test was slowed down to the exact degree they predicted it would be!
The same test was run with caffeine too, which, as a stimulant, people commonly believe will increase their performance on such tests. The results were essentially the same, the more they believed that caffeine would improve their performance, the more they improved – whether or not they drank real caffeine. [Kirsch]
None of this is to say that these drugs don’t have some real chemical effect, of course they do, but it leads us to question whether the chemical effect may actually pale in comparison to the influence our expectancies/beliefs have over how an instance of substance use will affect us. In large part, we decide what the effect will be. Consider this:
“Sometimes alcohol may be a relaxant (the martini after the hard day at the office) and sometimes it may act as a stimulant (the first drink at the party).” -Zinberg
The effects of substances can be almost whatever we think they will be. Some of the most compelling information to support this view comes from studying other populations across the world to get a more objective and truthful understanding of overall human behavior as it relates to drinking and drug using. It has been found repeatedly and often that people’s behavior upon drinking or drugging is exactly what they expect it to be, and what is expected of them in their culture (or acceptable) – for better or for worse.
Mark Scheeren is the Chairman and Co-founder of Baldwin Research Institute Inc., the alcohol and drug research company that is the original creator of the non-disease, non 12-step model of alcohol and drug education; the Saint Jude Program. For over two decades Scheeren has researched hundreds of different methods, facilities, and cultures worldwide in an effort to discover the many keys to improving the quality of one’s life.