Who Is 12 Step Recovery For? What Are Physical and Process Addictions?

Issue 24. May 26, 2023 ✨ Higher Power Coaching & Consulting

12 Step recovery is for people with either a physical or process addiction. Physical addiction is when there’s some kind of substance we’re physically dependent on, like alcohol, drugs or food.

A process addiction is when we have a compulsion to engage consistently in a behavior, despite the extreme negative consequences related to that behavior. This includes things like gambling, codependence, sex, relationships, etc. The big difference between process addiction and physical addiction is the lack of physical dependence on a substance.

They are both addictions though, because of the compulsive behavior and they require treatment, attention, and care. Keep in mind that I’m not a therapist, so this is my own understanding of these addictions as an addict (of both kinds) and a person in recovery and I’m explaining them in lay terms.

Physical Addictions

I’ll use alcohol as the example because Alcoholics Anonymous is the mother program from which all other 12 step programs branched.
Addiction is a two-fold illness: there are physical and mental components. For the physical aspect of addiction, it means that when you ingest the substance you’re addicted to (e.g., alcohol) you have an abnormal reaction. Another word for an “abnormal reaction” is “allergy.”

When a typical person drinks alcohol, they have a limit and they’re able to stop there. They might drink heavily from time to time, but for the alcoholic the abnormal reaction is that when they ingest it their body craves more.

It doesn’t matter how much damage alcohol has done to their body or their life, their body craves more. The only way to overcome this physical aspect of the addiction is to not ingest the allergen. If the alcoholic doesn’t abstain from drinking alcohol, the allergy is activated and the insatiable craving returns. When you stop ingesting it, your body stops craving it after a time.

The really insidious part of this disease is the mental component. The way we talk about it in recovery is, “we have a disease that tells us we don’t have a disease.” It tells us things like, “I haven’t had a drink for 90 days, so I must not be an alcoholic. I can have just one this time. This time it’s going to be different.”

This is despite volumes of evidence that you’ve never been able to have just one. Facts don’t matter when it comes to this mental obsession, or “strange mental twist.”

The way that we deal with this mental component of the disease is through the 12 steps of recovery. When we say that we are powerless over our alcohol, we’re admitting that it doesn’t matter how many years go by, when we ingest that allergen the allergy is going to kick in. We have no power over that, the craving will return. Often worse than ever.

Because our problem is lack of power, the solution is a power greater than yourself. Going through the 12 steps aligns us with something greater than ourselves (a Higher Power – who many refer to as God).

We need a Power greater than ourselves to put down the alcohol and keep abstaining. We also need that Power to turn things over to and to guide our decision making so we don’t have to feel responsible for the entire universe.

The journey through the 12 steps is meant to get us to have a spiritual awakening (we are changed) and practice the principles of 12 step recovery in all our affairs (we live in alignment with our spiritual values). When we’re able to do that we can feel proud of ourselves and we’re much less likely to drink again because we’re able to have more stable lives.

Process addictions

These are mainly about the mental obsession, though there can be a physically addictive component in terms of what some call “the inner drug store.” These are things like adrenaline and cortisol that we get a rush of when we engage in our obsessive and compulsive behaviors (e.g., gambling, sex, debting, codependence).

If we’ve grown up with dysfunction, our systems were activated like this all the time. We were in fight or flight mode which made us feel alive. When we don’t have that internal drugstore activated, we might feel bored or like we’re not even alive.

This is why we sometimes reject people who have healthy boundaries as candidates for dating because we think they’re BORING.

Going through the 12 steps of recovery helps us to understand that the sense of peace we feel in their presence is actually calmness, it’s not boredom. It’s healthy and something that we want to get used to. But it takes time.

We need the 12 steps of recovery for the process addictions just as much as we need them for the physical addictions. We especially need recovery for the mental component when it comes to process addictions. We think that just because we haven’t gambled or had sex for a certain period of time, that “this time it will be different” (despite all evidence to the contrary). These are illnesses that people are NOT CHOOSEING. We don’t choose to wreck our bodies, minds, lives and families.

If you or someone you know needs help with either kind of addiction, here are some of my favorite recovery resources linked here. I’ve also got a page on my website with some free resources that I created.

Also, feel free to reach out to me – you’re not alone! As we say in recovery, the opposite of addiction is connection, and “we’re protected when we’re connected.”

Things I don’t want to live without…

Melaleuca: The Wellness Co.

I’ve been buying cleaning products and other wellness products from this company for the past five year. I hate chemicals and it’s important to me to use cleaning products that are environmentally, friendly (as well as vitamins, make up, essential oils and other such household products). Unlike many other environmentally friendly cleaning products I’ve tried (or made at home) these work!

The company refers to itself as a shopping club, which essentially means you have to have a minimum order monthly in order to qualify for “member discounts.” I’m not selling it, I’m just telling you how much I love their stuff!

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