Mind Over Sports

The Power Of Expectations

Posted on: March 12, 2007

Many Native Americans have a perceived susceptibility to alcoholism. But a number of studies have concluded that heavy drinking is not a trait that is genetically transferred.

A paper published in the Journal of Alcohol Studies reported that Ernest Harburg, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Michigan, conducted a 31-year research project with four other scientists. Harburg’s conclusion:

Children of heavy drinkers were not more likely than children of abstainers or near-abstainers to become heavy drinkers . . . the results suggest there cannot be a simple genetic or biological-disease explanation for alcoholism. In the case of alcohol, there’s enough evidence that habits are acquired and can be changed. The research findings went against the widespread impression that heavy drinkers produce heavy drinkers.

Archie Brodsky, a Senior Research Associate at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center and co-author of The Truth About Addiction and Recovery, writes “the belief that alcoholism is hereditary stems from the untested observations of clinicians who treat alcoholics from flawed studies.”

Alcohol abuse is not necessarily transferred from one generation to another. Though it may be true that some people may be genetically pre-disposed toward substance abuse, what is transferable is not measurable by standard research practice: that is, how parents transfer feelings of inferiority (low self-esteem) to their children.

Youths whose parents abuse alcohol, and who believe (because of genetics) they also will inherit their parents’ behavior, often fulfill that prophecy by living out those expectations.

Drug and alcohol abuse are symptomatic of an issue — or issues — that have yet to be addressed and resolved in an individual’s life.

People who avoid addressing their issues — people who withhold — lower their self-esteem and create stress for themselves based on how they view life. Many turn to drugs and alcohol for relief.

There?s a quote from Hemingway’s book For Whom The Bell Tolls. Anselmo, the old gypsy, takes a drink of whiskey and says . . . “That is what kills the worm that haunts us.” But Anselmo — and Hemingway — were wrong. Whiskey doesn’t kill the worm, it merely douses it and immerses it in alcohol. When the effect of the alcohol subsides, the worm is still there, waiting to be doused again.

One of the reasons the AA program can be effective is because it provides members with the opportunity to not only acknowledge the presence of the worm, but to also eliminate it. In addition, AA members are encouraged to call upon a higher power to assist them in their recovery. However, I was surprised to read in a national publication that more than 18 million Americans are alcoholics, and according to studies by Alcoholics Anonymous, nine out of ten suffer relapses. Very often, people who enter the program are forewarned of this high failure rate. I believe this information should be kept confidential and not shared with someone who has just entered the program since it creates a negative expectation that is almost certain to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you’re an alcoholic, I believe once you resolve the underlying issue or issues in your life which cause your excessive behavior, you can then return to a normal lifestyle that could even include moderate drinking. This is why many former alcoholics are able to drink moderately after their rehabilitation. They have confronted their issue — or issues — and resolved them. And, of course, they possess a strong belief in their ability to do so.

There are many doctors, therapists, and counselors who will disagree with this point of view, but I believe it’s valid. Excessive behavior of any kind is usually symptomatic of unresolved issues in a person’s life. Even excessive religious beliefs.

A few years ago, an article appeared in a national magazine that reviewed a book entitled Breaking The Chains, written by Episcopal priest Leo Booth. The review, which was titled “Praise the Lord, But Not Too Much,” pointed out that for most people, religion is a source of joy and comfort. For millions of others, it’s more like a harmful drug.

According to the author:

People hooked on religion experience the same powerlessness in trying to control their relationship with God as other addicts do concerning any chemical . . . Therapists say those vulnerable usually have very low self-esteem. Don Barmettler, Director of Colorado Spring’s Institute for Integral Development, a school for professionals who treat addicts, found that a punitive, shame-based religious background can hamper a person’s sense of self and his ability to experience the love of God and others. Many religious addicts also were physically or emotionally abused as children, and exposed to alcohol or drug abuse.

The repressed feelings of religious addicts can create other destructive behavior. For example, food is one substance permitted in religious circles, and many addicts stuff their feelings behind it. Some religious clubs and TV evangelists particularly prey on infirm, lonely women, encouraging them to focus on a relationship with Jesus cemented with financial contributions.

By the way, those young Pima boys mentioned earlier also revealed how their public school teacher had them (together with some black and Hispanic teenagers) sign contracts that they would not cause trouble in class. This teacher was an excellent example of someone creating a negative expectation in a school environment. In Marilyn Ferguson’s book The Aquarian Conspiracy, she wrote:

Teachers unintentionally communicate their expectations of what a student can do, thus setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those youngsters expected to do well usually thrive, even if the teacher’s expectations are based on bogus information.

In many instances, doctors not only interpret our symptoms but also create them. A friend who was diagnosed with ALS — often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease ? recounted how, when he was first diagnosed, he was invited to attend a support group with other ALS patients. He was not told that these were patients with advanced ALS. When he entered the room, he was confronted with people in wheelchairs unable to function, many unable to sit upright and some drooling on themselves. It was a terrifying experience that very clearly established a nocebo effect, or a strong negative expectation. He ended up taking his own life rather than allowing his body to deteriorate, based on his expectations created by his being exposed to other patients. The ALS program would be better served by placing newly diagnosed patients in support groups with others who were also newly diagnosed. After all, Stephen Hawking, the professor of mathematics at Cambridge who has ALS and a wonderfully full career, was once told by doctors he had less than 30 months to live. That was 30 years ago.

We can also, unknowingly, create negative expectations for our loved ones who may be in the hospital recovering from major surgery. When doctors predict that patients may not live through the night, too often we say our last “goodbyes,” letting them know that we don’t expect them to pull through their ordeal. Our loved ones would be better off if we wrote our feelings on a piece of paper and put it in a dresser drawer, because the feelings we are expressing are more for ourselves than for the patient. Better we should give them a hug and kiss and tell them we’ll see them in the morning.

Now there are those who are fatalistic about death. They believe: when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. But you can hasten your own death by what you eat, by what you believe, by unknowingly lowering your own self-esteem creating stress for yourself. And others who may convey to us that we’re dying also contribute to the process. Of course, those who are fatalistic believe that even the actions you take to hasten your own death are pre-ordained.

Many negative expectations are associated with advancing age, such as diminishing brain power and a deterioration in the immune system. But medical research has provided scientific verification that neither premise is true. Yet, we tend to follow paths created by our own expectations.

One exception involves an older man who is considered to be about 90% blind. He has his own radio call-in talk show, featuring guests who are authorities in their respective fields, so he must stay current on all the new research and political events happening around the world — and he does this by memorizing all the data — even though he’s well into his 70’s. His brain power hasn’t diminished. In fact, it may have become even more acute. The adage of “use it or lose it” not only applies to physical skills, but to our brains as well.

Beliefs and expectations can have a powerful effect on our lives. Here’s a sampling of some of those encountered in the past:

“Alcoholism runs in my family, so it’s just a matter of time before I become an alcoholic.”

“My grandfather and father both died young, so the chances are good I will, too.”

“I will not get cancer because I have strong genes that will repel it.”

“I will live to a ripe old age because all the men in my family did.”

“I drink fresh carrot juice every day and it’s helping to keep my cancer in remission.”

“I had cancer once and I know distancing myself from any reminder regarding the disease is crucial for me.”

“I know that, by strengthening my immune system, I will put my cancer into remission.”


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