When Willpower Isn’t Enough: A missing link for overcoming addictions and self-defeating/self-harming behaviours


“If only I had enough will power… I could turn my life around.” Have you heard this before? What if you have the willpower, the drive and the urgency to make changes in your life, and you still feel something’s undermining your progress? What if you feel trapped in a cycle of thoughts and reflexive actions that you revert to whenever you are stressed, anxious, scared, upset or disappointed? Is this all in your head? The answer is, “No. It is in your nerves.”

All memory is in your nerves. Memory in your brain, muscle memory, organ memory, emotional memory… all of it. Even genetic memory is modulated by your nerves. How does this happen? Your nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) exists to control and coordinate EVERY function of EVERY cell, tissue, organ and system in the body, including your mind. The purpose of the nervous system is to help you adapt to internal and external conditions so your needs are met for survival, growth, development, healing, protection and overcoming challenges. The nervous system has built-in responses from evolution (i.e. higher blood pressure helps move more blood to muscles for escape from danger or crying in response to pain) and learned responses during a lifetime (i.e. when daddy looks at you a certain way, you know you are going to be in trouble, or you walk slower when barefoot on a rocky beach).

Reflexive responses are patterns entrenched in your nervous system. They become automatic responses because of repetition or because they were formed due to a highly emotionally-charged event. Pavlov’s dogs are a good example of learning through repetition. During Dr. Pavlov’s experiment, whenever a bell rang, food would be presented to the dogs and they would salivate. Soon enough, the dogs would salivate whenever they heard a bell, whether food was presented or not. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a prime example of an emotionally-charged event (i.e. seeing your friend killed in a war zone) that send a person into shock. Hearing a sudden, loud noise can cause the affected person to re-live the trauma and go directly into an emergency state, even if the person is currently safe from harm.

The reflexive response can take many forms. It can be a recurring thought such as “I always lose at this game”, “What is the point of trying?” or “nobody likes me.” It can also be in the form of actions or behaviours, like freezing when you are the centre of attention, cutting yourself to distract from emotional pain, drowning your sorrows in alcohol, or staying in an abusive relationship because you think that is what you deserve. What they have in common is that they served a purpose early on, when you felt helpless to change the situation (i.e. when you were young, or it caught you off guard). They can be quite reasonable protective mechanisms in the original circumstances. While it may be reasonable to respond in this manner initially, these are not beneficial responses in the future. The more one uses this response, the more automatic it becomes and the less that person thinks or chooses how he or she wants to live. Thus, the person becomes trapped in a cycle of addiction and self-harming or self-defeating behaviours.

Einstein said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.” Therefore, dwelling on the cause of the unwanted thoughts and behaviours, and re-hashing past traumas are likely to justify the behaviours and reinforce them, rather than help one move on with life in a healthier way.

What is the missing link in overcoming addictions and undesirable behaviours? The nerves. Conventional treatments ignore that nerves have become over-stimulated to respond in one way and under-stimulated to respond in another way. Specialty chiropractic protocols (neurological re-integration movements), act as nerve rehabilitation to help undo the maladaptive nerve patterns through repeated nerve stimulation. Specific chiropractic adjustments work to undo physical interferences to normal nerve communication. This helps with stress management in the present time and nerve healing over the long run. By re-aligning the spine, there is less on-going irritation that damages nerves and alters nerve sensitivity. In short, chiropractic increases resilience so a person does not get triggered so easily into the maladaptive thoughts and behaviours.

Is this to say addictions and mental illness can be reversed with a few cracks to the neck or back? NO! The ideal conditions for overcoming addictions, mental illness and self-harming behaviours were the chiropractic sanitariums in the first half of the 20th Century. These were like health retreat centres on beautiful grounds where in patients experienced daily chiropractic care, physical therapy, good nutrition, daily exercise, fresh air, meditation, positive thoughts and a break from modern life stressors and destructive influences. Together, this holistic approach addresses the whole person, body, mind and spirit. The sanitarium was a respite from temptations and stresses, plus a place for concentrated healing. In fact, these sanitariums were the go-to-place for people suffering from schizophrenia and for good reason – they worked! Success was not merely the suppression of symptoms… it was the ability of patients to return to society and lead productive, fulfilling lives once more. The advent of psychotropic medication marked the end of the chiropractic sanitariums as people chose the “quick fix” over the much-more demanding task of helping the whole person. Many medical sanitariums closed as well since it seemed like fewer people needed to be institutionalized for mental illness. Unfortunately, over time we found out the nasty side effects of those medication. A large proportion of our homeless people are those who have refused their medications for mental illness because of the side effects.

Is there a modern option like the chiropractic sanitarium? Not yet. However, there are a few chiropractors who have extra training to take on difficult cases such as these. They offer more intensive care programs of chiropractic and wholistic care over longer periods of time for those in a difficult situation. Whether it’s PTSD, depression, breaking an addiction, cutting, schizophrenia, anxiety, overeating, OCD, or other diagnoses, helping the nerves can make a huge difference in the quality of life.

Do you know someone who is facing too many hurdles to live life fully? Contact our office for a free consultation with Dr. Sabrina Chen-See. If you are willing, we can help you find a way.