Addiction Recovery, Wellness and the Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks Principle

We all recall the story of Goldilocks and her quest for finding, “just right.” She naturally defaults to looking for her, “not too hard, not too soft” sleeping surface and her, “not too hot, but not too cold” porridge as she goes about her way in seeking balance and comfort–all in the midst of an otherwise and potentially dangerous environment. It’s such a great story to apply to the way we find our way in this miraculous existence from cosmologists describing the “just right” place we find ourselves in our Solar System and Milky Way Galaxy to another way to think about, “just right” in addiction recovery.

Goldilocks Principle in Addiction Recovery

People entering substance and behavior dependency recovery are woefully out of balance after losing all semblance of “just right” in the healthiest sense. Returning to and maintaining the delicate place of balance is the goal. It seems to be a condition of existence to seek, find and maintain balance on a regular basis as for example, the Earth shows us the fragile equilibrium required as even a slight change in global temperature can be catastrophic.

The good news is that getting back to balance is very possible for us since the template for “just right” is already programmed in our minds and bodies when we remove the out-of-balance toxins and deficiencies and return to the prescribed baseline of wellness. There is much common ground here, but each of us has to find our own, unique “wellness zone.”

Hormesis in Addiction Recovery

Bad Stress – Good Stress: That’s Hormesis

Now what we know about our human existence is that it seems to require an interesting juxtaposition of just the right combination of “nutrients” in the way we move, eat and think with just the right amount of stress, (not too hot, not too cold) to find our “Goldilocks” balance.

Another way of describing this process of acquiring balance is with the term, “Hormesis”–one of those curious words that doesn’t sound or look like what it is:

Hormesis is the term for generally favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors.

By now you get the Goldilocks metaphor, but how does this translate to the way our bodies and minds work in addiction recovery? You might be thinking, “We get to addiction treatment because we’re totally stressed out and now you’re telling me stress is good?” Well yeah, and just a little good stress goes a long way.

As you allow this metaphor to stretch a bit more here, think of our “three bears” as these three, sometimes “hormetic”, essential “nutrients” required for optimal health and life expression. The first “bear” is movement, which is required–essential!–for good health, but the movement has got to be in the presence of resistance. For example, astronauts don’t fare very well after long periods of time without this resistance otherwise known as gravity, (BTW, see the movie, Gravity, ASAP). Our muscles need to break down and build back up on a regular basis for all of the physiological processes to work optimally in the body and mind. We don’t usually think of movement as a “nutrient”, but it truly is. Regular movement as an essential nutrient to provide this good stress is the key here and that’s hormesis working in our favor.

The second “bear” might be, and more commonly thought of as the nutrients in the way of food we consume. Most of us think of foods like broccoli, (‘cept 6 year old humans…) for example, as nutrient-dense and very good for us. But did you know that broccoli has a host of mild toxins in it which actually fire up our immune systems in this “hormetic” way? Our species has found and consumed these nutrients through the ages to give us more of the, “just right” immune system and brain chemical balance we need to survive and thrive. Well sourced food supplies just the right amount of this good stress.

Okay then, what about the third bear? The third bear is the balancing act with respect to how we think and feel. There’s an old adage that says we have 10,000 thoughts every day and 80% of them are negative. Well, donno about everyone else, but I can get off on some pretty bad stress related, “stinkin’ thinkin'” riffs on the freeway, for sure.

Seeking, finding and maintaining “just right” thoughts requires hormesis too. I’ve got to be willing to take a look at how (good stress) I’m taking a look at things on, you guessed it, a regular basis. And when I do, I’m keeping this potential angry bear at bay with practices like mindfulness along with the synergistic effects of balancing my good stressors outlined above.

Balanced Brain in Addiction Recovery

Target Organ, Heal Thyself

The disease of addiction reveals its target organ as the brain. The addicted brain has established patterns way out of balance–way too cold and way too hot–and what we need to do in addiction recovery is feed the brain just right portions of yes, essential “nutrients” in the way we move, eat and think. These three bears are always there to offer up just the right amount of resistance, giving rise to just the right amount of each nutrient to deliver what Goldilocks and we all want most; safety, comfort, peace of mind, joy, productivity and robust health.

Thanks for letting the Goldilocks Principle get walked, “all around the park” here so-to-speak–because in the final analysis addiction recovery is about fine tuning stress management as we learn what “just right” means for each of us. It can be a bear to wrestle with addiction for life or…it can be a blast finding and maintaining balance by feeding those bears what they want.

The overarching point is to realize that each of us has a “set point” for wellness. All too often there is a misunderstanding that addiction recovery is about merely stopping the abuse of drugs and behaviors that are rendering lives and families unmanageable. Mere abstention can return an individual to a substandard baseline where relapse is inevitable. Another way to think about it is addiction relapse represents having settled for a baseline that is, “far too hot or far too cold.” Abstaining from our drug or behavior of choice is the first step in a life-long quest to find that just right set point–a great place to live.

Your addiction recovery will have thresholds to find and maintain for a lifetime in the way you’re moving, eating and thinking–your “wellness zone”–just one day at a time. And…we already know what it’s like to live beyond those parameters, (not even a nice place to visit anymore) so here’s to practicing wellness and thriving in each of our own, just right, long-term recoveries.

Dr. Herby Bell is a Recovery and Wellness Coach and owner of Recovery Health Care, an integrated approach to wellness and addiction recovery in Saratoga, California. For more information please call 650 474 9411 or Email:  Connect with me online too:  Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • That’s a good analogy. And I hope that people recovering from addiction find their “just right” phase.
    Kathryn Dilligard Wants You To Read…The Site OwlMy Profile

  • Hi Herby,

    I too like your analogy to Goldilocks and The Three Bears. It is important for someone coming into recovery to embrace the “just right” thoughts and the health and wellness that you advocate so well. It makes complete sense to me that this strategy would be the support that is needed for the long term. Inspiring post!
    Cathy Taughinbaugh Wants You To Read…How to Detach When You Love Your KidsMy Profile

  • I love your Goldilocks analogy – it clearly illuminates your spot-on message, “The disease of addiction reveals its target organ as the brain. The addicted brain has established patterns way out of balance–way too cold and way too hot–and what we need to do in addiction recovery is feed the brain just right portions of yes, essential “nutrients” in the way we move, eat and think.” Who would have guessed 10-15 years ago that what heals the body (nutritious eating, regular exercise, thinking well) also heals the brain, which heals the body, which heals the brain – thanks for making this whole concept so approachable, Herby!
    Lisa Frederiksen – Wants You To Read…Hate My BodyMy Profile

  • Thank you, Herby, for this relevant and important piece. It’s such a good fit for moi just now, and I’ll tell you why. This 55 hour work week counselor found his routine, and sometimes shlocky lifestyle habits, were catching up with him. A psychiatrist friend of mine recommended I read Joan Larson’s Seven Weeks to Sobriety. I said, “Why would I want to read that if I have 29 years of uninterrupted sobriety?” In so many words, she implied that though I may no longer consume alcohol, perhaps I’m abusing other “things” to get my fix – and have yet to find my, as you put it, “wellness zone.” I found that damned interesting and just acquired the book. I believe in what you so eloquently preach, Herby. And I’m diggin’ Goldilocks. Thanks, man…
    Bill White, Licensed Counselor Wants You To Read…Fresh and Interesting Tidbits from the World of Research…My Profile

    • HerbyBell says:

      Thanks, Bill for the mea culpa and just right mirror of what I think we can do every day as recovering humans. Obviously you’ve been living in many, many just right ways for many moons and for you to be able to continue your honest, open willingness is inspirational. Seven Weeks to Sobriety is in my library and BTW, Grain Brain by a neurologist named David Perlmutter is a must read too. Hadda put the porridge down for good after that one…

      Thanks for visiting RHC as it takes a community!
      HerbyBell Wants You To Read…#19: Dr. Bob Navarra – Couples in Addiction RecoveryMy Profile

  • Such a great analogy Herby, and I love the part where you say that relapse can represent having settled for a baseline of wellness at either too hot or too cold. That equilibrium certainly is where it’s at – trying to find it is tricky for us all. Thanks for your creativity here in bringing forth such a great message!

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