Last time, Zephyr explained how the brain works and how it’s relevant for our need for comfort and the dopamine response. Now for an enlightening piece on what addiction is…
I am an addict. Not in the conventional sense of the concept as an alcoholic or an illicit drug-addict, but a human addicted to dopamine nonetheless.
Anything that gives pleasure, positive or negative, provides the brain with dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful organic chemical in our brain that works as a neurotransmitter creating a reward loop in motivating behaviour.
My addiction is feeling in control or having some sort of power over an outcome so I feel safe, important, needed, seen, loved, validated, belonged, etc.
It is said that the mind is the forerunner of all things, so what we think and act, our world becomes.
Quite a nice thought when everything is going just fine but what if things are not so fine and we feel ourselves stuck in a loop where things never improve: addicted, depressed, anxious, fearful?
Here is an example.
There is an alcoholic that is trying to stay sober. They get in a fight with their partner which is highly emotionally charged. They storm out of the house and hit the streets to burn off steam.
- They are flooded with feeling, thoughts and memories of pain and stress (Limbic & Insula). They pass their old hang-out called “Ray’s Happy Bar.” The door is invitingly open, the sounds of glasses clinking, bouts of laughter cry out. The old familiar smells of worn leather, stale beer and … The process which happens in milliseconds goes like this.
- The Limbic System senses anger, sadness and hurt, drawing memories of all the other times when the alcoholic felt this way flooding the brain and the body with stress hormones.
- The Dorsal Striatum suggests that when the alcoholic felt this way the routine and habit it has is to go into the bar and drink.
- This perks up the Nucleus Accumbens, which cries out YES! We haven’t had fun for so long! Let’s go party!
- Then the reasonable part, Prefrontal Cortex, steps in with authority and says NO! We are trying to stay sober and change our lives for the better.
Now, in this example there are two out of three parts of the brain heavily leaning to go and drink.
Especially, one with no care for long-term consequence and in a need to get dopamine (Nucleus Accubens)! Who will win?
Usually, the impulsive habit which will pacify the Limbic System in feeling better even for a short time will win.
Unless this alcoholic has replaced their addictive routine/habit with something that provides equal or more dopamine than the act of drinking then the Nucleus Accumbens gets to have it’s party.
This is where the Prefrontal Cortex needs to come in again to plead to the other two offices.
“We are going to AA meetings. In those meetings people see us, give us warm tea, hugs, share lives and make us feel less alone with our issues.
Why don’t we call an AA friend, sponsor or go to a meeting instead of the bar. Remember what happens after a night of drinking?
We make it worse in the end, making more of a mess and it gets to become unmanageable as our drinking progresses, bringing us right back where we started.”
This is an all too familiar example for what the office dialogue might be for a recovering alcoholic. Two systems are leaning towards going into the bar.
If the alcoholic has not replaced the addictive routine/habit with something that provides an equal amount of dopamine, the Prefrontal Cortex will get vetoed and the addict will go back down a path of drinking and the continuous negative loop.
It is almost that simple.
Thanks to Zephyr Wildman for her leadership and knowledge.
Alanon Family Groups support groups for those who’s lives have been affected by addiction. https://al-anon.org
Overeaters Anonymous http://www.oagb.org.uk
Anorexia and Bulimia Anonymous http://aba12steps.org
Sex and Love Addicts http://www.slaauk.org