Chasing Intensity: The Addictive Search for Thrills and Escape

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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

All addictive behaviors are characterized by the desire to disconnect from uncomfortable emotional or physical situations through one of two strategies. The first strategy is numbing, where feelings are deadened and disconnected and there is little awareness of body sensations connected to feelings. The second strategy is chasing intensity, an often-reckless urge to ignite passion and thrills and sometimes even terror. Stimulant drugs and many process addictions (such as sex, gambling, and pornography) accomplish just that. Activities like skydiving can also result in an “addictive” desire to replicate the thrill (or terror) that is experienced.

For addicts, boredom and other low-stimulation states can trigger this desire for stimulation. Thus, open, unstructured time can be perilous for recovering addicts. In fact, many recovering individuals describe boredom or low levels of stimulation as key triggers for relapsing or acting out. Once an addict is in the mindset of chasing intensity, any insight and good judgment offered by his or her higher brain (pre-frontal cortex), which has more abstract thinking powers and the ability to predict undesirable outcomes, is significantly diminished, leaving the addict to the relatively unchecked urges of the brain’s reward center which, put simply, screams for more. When this occurs priorities become clouded, deadlines pass, problem-solving skills become elusive or vanish totally, and chaos reigns.

Such stimulation-seeking is often described as life on a razor’s edge because the thrilling excitement can quickly and unpredictably turn to terror as the potential consequences of recklessness emerge. For example, allowing oneself to be injected by a stranger at a sex party might be a thrilling idea, but it can quickly turn to terror as soon as the syringe breaks the skin. Similarly, pursuing the thrill of sex in a public place can set off a torrent of adrenaline – until one is discovered by an unseen law enforcement officer. And high-risk unprotected sex with several men at a chemsex party may seem “intimate” or validating while under the influence, then morph into a cascade of remorse and despair when the drugs wear off.

Addicts quickly learn that they can manipulate their experience by increasing their chase for intensity. This is particularly true when tolerance develops, where more and more of the addictive drug or behavior is required to achieve the same effect. To combat this, a strategy of “stacking” is often employed, with addicts stacking various drugs and/or behaviors together to get a synergistic effect. Chemsex, for example, combines powerful stimulants with sexual behavior and other drugs. A sex addict may find that taking more and more risks is required to stoke that thrill, or sexual acting out may become darker or more taboo. The longer these patterns are in place, the more difficult it is for the addict to tolerate periods of low intensity.

The good news is that there are tools and skills that can be employed to combat this phenomenon. A few of the more commonly utilized are listed here.

  • Personal Grounding Techniques: Any person in recovery should maintain an arsenal of techniques with which he or she can stabilize mood swings and maintain equilibrium. Simple breathing techniques can quickly restore a sense of calm even in the most agitated states. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth triggers the internal system of self-regulation and has a calming effect. Practicing visualizations, in which a soothing or safe place that is associated with positive feelings is identified, is also useful, as it elicits a state of emotional and physiological calming. Recovering addicts can also employ types of progressive relaxation where, starting from the head and moving to the feet, muscle groups are systematically flexed and released, slowing discharging any built-up tension.
  • Awareness of Triggering Emotions: As noted above, the desire to seek escape through thrills and intensity is typically triggered by an unpleasant emotion that the addict does not want to experience. These are often basic feelings such as fear, anger, and sadness. Addicts may not even be consciously aware of these feelings; they just suddenly get the urge to act out, seemingly out of the blue. For this reason, it is important for people in recovery to practice naming the feelings they are experiencing and to process them accordingly – no small feat for people who may not easily understand what they are feeling and lack skills for healthy expression of emotions. In such cases, developing this skillset is a critical building block for recovery.
  • Maintaining Emotional Equilibrium: The identification and expression of feelings is important for managing triggers and cravings, but the ability to maintain emotional equilibrium – to maintain a relatively even keel – is equally important. Recovery groups convey certain recommendations based on the experience of countless addicts, including not leaving a meeting with unexpressed feelings, distracting oneself by playing with a pet, taking a nature walk, and reaching out to another recovering person to share a concern or make a human connection. Therapists might also recommend listening to self-talk, that internal chatter that is often highly critical and can quickly undermine one’s mood and confidence. When that negative chatter begins, it’s important to be able to “turn down the volume” and to counteract it with more affirming statements. That said, the most powerful source of emotional equilibrium is something that all addicts seek: social connection, which creates healthy bonds between individuals, rewards them with dopamine, and helps them reset the rewards system that has been hijacked by addiction.
  • Self-Compassion: One final tool that is useful in combatting the need for intensity is the ability to generate self-compassion. Recovery requires self-examination and taking responsibility for one’s actions (the 12 steps guide recovering addicts through this process), and many people forget to be gentle with themselves during that process. Changing negative self-talk and becoming vulnerable and open to more than superficial interaction with peers and loved ones are great ways to express and develop this type of self-compassion.

Many addicts have learned through unfortunate experience that, when chasing intensity, there is never enough. This adrenaline-pumped state is itself addictive and sets off triggers for their primary addictions. Recovery means slowing down, learning to tolerate lower levels of stimulation, and experiencing and gently releasing unwanted thoughts and behaviors.