The classification of addictions has grown tremendously over the last 40 years. Not long ago, people mainly talked about chemical addictions such as alcohol and drugs. Now-a-days, we also hear about non-chemical addictions such as pornography, food, sex, gaming, gambling, internet use, social media, shopping, exercise, and more.
What are we to make of these new categories; are they real addictions? What do they have in common and how do we treat them? It cannot be denied that these problems are real. The evidence for their reality is demonstrated in the huge number of families, marriages, relationships, finances, jobs and lives that are being systematically destroyed by both chemical and non-chemical addictions.
All of these difficulties can be classified as bona-fide addictions, in part, because of their similar symptom profile but more importantly, because they all share the same root biological cause; specifically, a cluster of brain structures known as the Medial Forebrain Bundle (MFB). When stimulated, the MFB releases a chemical neurotransmitter known as dopamine that produces subjective feelings of pleasure, bliss, delight, ecstasy, etc.
Repeated exposures to “substances” that cause the release of dopamine can produce an addiction by virtue of excessive and disproportionate activity in the MFB. In other words, once the link between the substance (heroin, pornography, etc.) and the reward (pleasure) has been established, every further exposure to the substance will strengthen the power of this brain “circuit.”
This neural system matured during human evolution in order to sustain and propel future generations of life. In other words, we desire sex to reproduce our genes and we crave tasty foods to keep our bodies alive. Nature created the pleasure that comes along with eating and sex to motivate us to continue with these behaviours. This motivational circuit evolved to ensure the continuation of humanity and it served its function extremely well for millions of years until quite recently. So, what went wrong? Human evolution could not predict that we would someday create such immensely powerful, unusual and unnatural products to stimulate the MFB. Put plainly, human beings were never designed, and certainly not prepared, to encounter heroin and pornography.
So, what do we do about this? The “easy part” is getting over the physical addiction. A month or so completely away from the “drug” is usually enough time to end a physical addiction. However, no matter how difficult it is to get over physical withdrawal symptoms, it is nothing compared to the titanic challenge of the psychological recovery that awaits.
Once the physical addiction (withdrawal symptoms) has passed, people return to their lives. Unfortunately, their lives are the places where their addiction began thus making a return to these environments a dreadful mistake because these poor souls are now exposed once again to all of the things, and all of the people, that were there before the physical addiction was treated. More specifically, people return to the same stores from where they purchased their alcohol and to the same drug dealers from whom they purchased their drugs. In addition, they are still surrounded by the same people with whom they previously consumed their drugs and alcohol and they still have access to the same electronic devices with internet availability where the fateful products and services that destroyed their lives can still be purchased.
Once people are exposed to those “trigger cues” again, the brain circuit that they worked so hard to put down, during their time of detox/rehab, is now resurrected and it has only one goal in mind: To keep that re-awakened addictive circuit alive. The original purpose of that ancient circuit was to keep our ancestors alive so that they could reproduce their genes into future generations. Unfortunately, as a result of modern inventions such as heroin and pornography, those benevolent ancient drives used to sustain and reproduce life are now being mis-used and perverted to serve the continuation of our present-day addictions.
The problem for modern-day humans is that the things we created (heroin, pornography, etc.), to artificially super-activate our ancient pleasure circuits, are toxic and deadly to the human life those circuits were originally meant to support. Ironically, our ancient circuits are now working toward achieving two simultaneous yet incompatible goals. Specifically, 1) sustaining and propagating life through food and sex while at the same time 2) maintaining the use of heroin and pornography. As a result, you are stuck in your addiction because the same circuit responsible for sustaining and propagating your life is also responsible for what is now destroying your life.
This is why it is so hard to break an addiction. It is hard, but not impossible. Overcoming an addiction can be done. However, to truly beat an addiction, 3 things are necessary:
- The addicted brain circuit has to be starved-out and suffocated. But this is only half of the story because such a person is only saying “no” to the substance. In other words, this is just prohibition — it is necessary but by no means sufficient to overcome the problem.
- It is crucial that this sleepy/suffocated circuit (which is still there) must be replaced with a healthy one. Specifically, a new circuit that will produce a new dopamine kick that will sustain and propel life forward in a beneficial manner. In other words, the person now needs an exciting and powerful adventure on which to embark. This adventure must be something that drives the person toward grabbing the reins of a new life aimed at fulfilling personal values that are deeply meaningful and purposeful.
- Treatment for an addiction is not for people who need it, it is for people who WANT it. It is for people who will do whatever it takes to achieve, sustain and propel into the future as well as into the next generation a physically and psychologically healthy life.
Dr. Giancola began his undergraduate studies at McGill University in 1987, working in a research laboratory specializing in addictions. During his doctoral work, he was trained, and then worked, in some of the leading research centers for addictions in the United States. As a university professor, Dr. Giancola received millions of dollars of grant funding from the prestigious National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to conduct research on the causes of addictions in adolescents and adults. He has published over 110 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles on these and related topics.
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