Understanding Addiction With the Gestalt Concept of the Cycle of Experience

Michael Clemmons, a Gestalt therapist, has written a very  useful  description of the process the addicted person goes through in his book, Getting Beyond Sobriety:  Clinical approaches to long-term recovery.  It was published by the Gestalt Press in 1997 and updated in 2005.   Clemmons uses the Gestalt concept of the Cycle of Experience, developed by Joseph Zinker, a long-time member of  the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, to explain the addictive person’s cognitive and emotional process when dealing with painful or frightening emotions.   He also contrasts it with  the non-addictive person’s way of dealing with painful emotions.

Here is an example of the process followed by a  normal woman,  one without any addictions:   she is sitting watching a TV show, which is about a relationship  between two brothers.  This triggers a memory of an argument she had earlier in the day with her sister over the phone that left her feeling hurt and angry.  She becomes aware of  a sensation of tightness in her chest and a shortness of breath She forms a picture of her sister and feels tears in her eyes and notices her  fists areclenched.  She ignores these sensation for awhile, but they become more intense, and she is finding it more difficult to concentrate on the TV show.  She begins to articulate the vague feelings of discomfort  as hurt and anger toward her sister.  She then forms a picture of her phone in her mind,  and realizes she needs to take some action.  She gets up, goes to the kitchen where her phone is, and calls her sister.  When her sister answers, she tells her about her hurt and anger as a result of the unresolved nature of their argument.  She also tells her that she loves her, and feels pain at being at odds with her.  Her sister listen for awhile and then tells her that she has also been upset and appreciates her call.  They discuss the issue between them from a new perspective and quickly resolve the conflict.  Her breathing becomes deeper, the tightness in her chest is gone,  and she feels happy that the issue with her sister has been resolved and that they are back to their close, loving relationship.    She then goes back to her living room and resumes watching TV.   

The process has been:   first vague bodily sensations, then awareness of these sensations, then being mobilized to take action, then actually taking the action, then assimilating the experience;  finally,  a feeling of equilibrium and calm.   

This same cycle goes on over and over again in everyone’s lives countless times  every day, whenever a need or a strong emotion is aroused and the individual is moved to act.

Addicted people have a different, shortened cycle when they are coping with painful, taboo emotions.  For example, consider an alcoholic  woman who has much conflict with her critical spouse. She is driving home, is a bit late, and thinks of her husband at home, waiting for her.  She has had many experiences with his being angry at her when she stays late at work.  In fact, one of the reasons she stays late is because she feels hurt and ashamed when he is angry at her, which is frequently the case, and she puts off leaving for home as long as possible.

As she drives, she begins to feel tightness in her chest and abdomen.  But she hasn’t learned to  tolerate those sensations and allow them to come to consciousness.  She has a vague sense of helplessness and anticipatory shame,  but is unable to tell herself what she is experiencing.   Instead,  she forms the image of a bottle of whiskey in her mind’s eye and  immediately stops feeling  so powerless.  She stops off at her local liquor store, buys a bottle of whiskey and, sitting in her car, takes a few deep swigs.  She  then feels relaxed and even a bit defiant.  She arrives home feeling somewhat immune to her husband’s anger towards her.  When he demands to know why she’s late again, she tells him to go to hell and marches off to bed.

Note that as she moved through the cycle of experience, there is physical tension in the woman, experienced as anxiety.  After she drinks the whiskey, the tension begins to diminish.    Autonomically speaking, the tension part of the cycle is sympathetic nervous system energy, anxiety and excitment; the releasing  part is parasympathetic energy, quiescence.

The difference between the “normal” and addicted person is that the latter has never learned some important things:  

      1.  To be able to articulate to herself what she is feeling emotionally.  

      2.  She can’t support the discomfort of the bodily sensations long enough to recognize that she is feeling afraid of her husband’s anger and anticipates shame when he yells at her.   She has never learned to tolerate the painful affect long enough to identify it and find other ways of dealing with it.  

      3.   She therefore can’t formulate other ways of dealing with his anger other than what she has known to work in the past:  getting drunk.  Lance Dodes, a psychiatrist who has written three excellent books on addiction, says that the core problem of all addicted people is a sense of unbearable helplessness.  In the example of alcoholic woman, she starts to feel better as soon as she realizes that she can take some action to deal with her pain.