Where there is emotional pain, addiction tends to follow
The repression of emotions does not go without sacrifice; with it a degree of capacity for positive emotion is lost as well. Deep down, below the level of consciousness, the child knows that he used to be a lot more joyous and happy and that something just isn’t right. This is because trapped hurt and unprocessed negative emotions have the tendency to re-emerge into conscious attention, so that the child can resolve the past abuse/trauma and the emotional wound can recover fully.
The child, unequipped with any means, methods or guidance on how to complete past hurt, plus afraid that he will be shamed and punished for sharing his authentic experience, will have the tendency to repress the painful emotions when they re-emerge.
He does not want to recall the past abuse/trauma, as he expects it will just mean more pain. So he remains stuck with it and will continually re-enact the pain, the ‘acting out’ I referred to earlier in this part. The child will seek out behaviours that will help him to sooth his pain, Bradshaw (1988) calls these mood alterations. The acting out invariably involves some form of addiction. The child does not want to feel the pain, so it will use a behaviour that will change how he feels (hence, the term mood alteration). These mood alterations are always only short-term and (as we will see in the following section,) will always leave the child with more pain than with which he started out with. In fact, addiction is just a progression of abuse/trauma, this time inflicted by the child on himself.
According to Gabor Mate (2009), people become addicted mostly as a result of impaired brain development which leaves them prone to addictions. Their brains are deficient in certain neurotransmitters and these developmental challenges are mostly the result of not receiving adequate nurturing and upbringing in childhood. The addictive mood alterations they engage in become the substitute for the love and connection they never received from their parents/caretakers.
I define a behaviour as an addiction when the behaviour:
(I) alters/elevates a person’s mood for short-term pain relief;
(II) is out of control (compulsive, not a conscious choice); and
(III) has long-term costs (negative consequences).
An addictive mood altering behaviour raises how good a person feels in the short-term, while leaving the individual emotionally depleted in the long-term. The mood of a person is associated with the amount of neurotransmitter (serotonin, dopamine, nor-epinephrine and the opioids being the biggest players in this) that is being released in the brain. There are several important aspects to this process and therefore, I will explain a couple basics of neurotransmission in the brain.
Activity and connections between neurons (brain cells) are made by means of neurotransmission. Neurons have axons that they use to connect with other neurons. This axon (which sort of looks like a tail or tentacle) connects with another neuron and between these two neurons a space (called a cleft or synapse) is created. If the axon of the first neuron gives a positive electrical signal (called an action potential), amounts of neurotransmitter are released into the cleft/synapse.
On the other side of the cleft/synapse, the other neuron has neurotransmitter receptors to which the neurotransmitters can bind. This binding process stimulates electrical activity in the second neuron, and might further facilitate an action potential in the next string of neurons. After the binding process, some of the neurotransmitter goes back into the axon of the first neuron (this process is called re-uptake) and others are broken down in the cleft/synapse.
Now, that’s a lot of neurological terms (if you’re new to brain biology), so I want to focus on three of these, namely:
(A) the amount of neurotransmitter present in the axon of the first neuron,
(B) the amount of neurotransmitter present in the cleft and
(C) the sensitivity of the neurotransmitter receptors of the second neuron.
As I mentioned earlier, addiction-prone individuals are deficient in certain neurotransmitters (A). As a result of this, how good they feel (on average) is lower than how a healthy human being feels. This is because they have been abused, mistreated and have received little love in their childhood (this shit is for real, scientists have found that chemicals essential to healthy brain development are being released when a baby receives love, warmth and nurturing from their mother). Gabor Mate (2009) calls the drug practices of his clients their attempts at getting “a warm, soft hug thru a needle”.
Addictive substances and behaviours work in such a way that they temporarily boost the amount of neurotransmitter present in the cleft (B), which results in heightened brain activity and is experienced as an ‘emotional high’ by the person. Different drugs and addictive behaviours influence the brain differently, but they usually engage the neurotransmitters I mentioned earlier. Cocaine, for example, temporarily raises the amount of dopamine (a neurotransmitter) in the cleft between neurons (brain cells) by blocking re-uptake of dopamine. Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s, commonly prescribed anti-depressants) operate similarly, only involving the neurotransmitter serotonin, instead of dopamine. Heroin and morphine work on the opioids and are known for soothing pain.
Addictive behaviours like gambling, work-a-holism, sex, power addiction, acquisition, approval-seeking and consumerism have been found to engage similar brain circuits.
Inevitably, the amount of neurotransmitter in the cleft (B) goes back down and with it the emotional high. The problem is, this heightened release and stimulation of neurotransmitter does not come without a price. The price that the person ends up paying is a double-edged sword. First of all, the amount of neurotransmitter reserve (A) will be depleted by the excessive release that the mood alteration had brought about, which means that the person actually becomes MORE deficient in their amount of neurotransmitter present in the axons of neurons (A). Also, the receptors of the second neuron are not used to such a high dose of neurotransmitter binding so these will adapt by regulating their (C) sensitivity downward. In some cases the number of neurotransmitter receptors even decreases in response to highly stimulating mood alterations.
This means that after the high wears off, the person experiences an emotional low (lower than the one that led him to mood alter in the first place).
A healthy human being then learns:
“Damn, this shit SUCKS, it makes me feel like shit afterwards. I’m surely not doing that again.”
Addiction-prone individuals have a tougher time learning this lesson as their baseline mood (how they feel on average) is one of neurotransmitter deficiency. IN REAL WORLD TERMS THAT MEANS THAT WHEN THESE PEOPLE MOOD ALTERED (took alcohol, drugs, engaged in addictive behaviour) FOR THE FIRST TIME THEY FINALLY FELT WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO FEEL GOOD.
As the addiction progresses, these people get more and more dependent on the mood alterations as their neurotransmitter deficiencies increase. Eventually, the addiction get’s out of control and the person gets into all kinds of trouble.
Most people never get to that point, they live lives in which they remain functional in Life while being semi-dependent on their addictions for their mood alterations.
The key thing to realize from all this, is that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ‘all things in moderation’ when it comes to mood altering substances or behaviours. They NEVER work long-term and they will ALWAYS create a neurotransmitter debt and a decreased sensitivity of the neurotransmitter receptors.
They only work in the short-term to boost a person into a more desirable emotional mood state. And that’s why people mood alter, because they cannot stand the pain and/or emotional low they are experiencing.
Off course, most people will readily deny the fact that they are FULL-BLOWN addicts, since they remain functional and fairly ‘successful’ in society. They will rationalize about how they are not really that out of control (like the hard-core drug addict is). They will state that they could quit their mood altering behaviours if they really wanted to, but engage in them voluntarily, because they actually want to.
This is complete bullshit and these rational-lies only serve to keep the addiction in place and the person from having to deal with it. All addictions are dysfunctional, as they have a compulsive quality and have negative long-term consequences.
If I don’t deny dysfunction, it means I have to deal with it, process it and get to completion with it. This is a challenge and if it is too much of stretch (outside of the comfort zone) for me, I will not do it.
To clarify that this is not just about the coke-sniffers, pill-poppers and heroin-shooters among us, I will list a couple of examples of milder and common types of addiction:
- Intellectual addiction: It is possible to get addicted to thinking. This is an addiction that involves shifting attention away from pain and onto something else. Pain can be numbed by filling conscious attention with thoughts and being focused on thinking. This one is very common in intellectual and introverted people (like scientists). They are addicted to the gathering of information and reasoning and theorizing about everything. The act of gathering information and reasoning is a positive quality to have, but it can take on a dysfunctional quality when it is done compulsively for the sake of avoiding what I feel.
- Work-a-holism: Similar to intellectual addiction in the sense that it uses the same mechanism of shifting attention away from the experience of pain and onto something else. Instead of focusing on thoughts and mental activity, it shifts attention to work tasks and being physically active. When I am busy constantly, I don’t have to focus on the pain I feel.
- Socially accepted addictions: Smoking, drinking alcohol, using medication (Prozac, Ritalin, pain-killers, etc.)
- Carbohydrate addiction: Sugar intake is ridiculously high for most people. Bread, pasta, cookies, candy, soda’s, chips and other processed foods are all candidates for being used as mood altering addictive substances.
- Self-enhancement: the mental act of enhancing the self-image in order to feel good about oneself. This may be accomplished in a variety of ways and all humans engage in it to some degree. This concept will be covered more thoroughly in Part III of this book.
- Sex addiction: Sexual activity is a great way to mood alter. Again, dysfunction arises when the behaviours become compulsive acts to mood alter. Pornography, masturbation and extreme promiscuity (slut/player behaviour) are the most common behaviours.
- Addiction to specific emotions: It is possible to trigger an emotion to get out of the experience I’m in. The most common involve happiness and anger. I can put on a happy act and persist with it until I actually manage to manipulate my natural emotional tendencies. Or I might selectively focus on something that could make me angry and get all upset about something arbitrary (like what’s on the news or the guy that cuts me off on the highway). Even though anger is a negative emotion, it usually feels better than being in pain.
- Gambling addiction: Getting the high of the risk of winning and losing money
- Shop-a-holism: Mood altering by being a consumer, buying new stuff and going on excessive shopping sprees.
- Power addiction: It is possible to get addicted to having influence and control over other people. We can mood alter by dominating others and feeling superior to them.
- Runners high: It is possible to get addicted to prolonged physical activity. When people engage in intense sport sessions lasting longer than 90-120 minutes (without rest periods) the body will release pain-killing chemicals in the body to cope with the unhealthy amount of stress it is under. This phenomenon is called runners high, because it is most common in marathon runners. Also, the pain killing chemicals give a person an experience of a high. It is literally being addicted to your own Stress Response (this concept will be covered in just a bit). This type of addiction is characteristic for sport and fitness fanatics that train for too long and too often. They often feel very proud of their own sense of sportsmanship, but when you look closely, you will quickly notice that their level of health does not match their level of fitness.
- Adrenaline junkies: Similar to runner’s high in that I seek to mood alter thru chemicals released by my bodies Stress Response. These include thrill-seeking behaviours and extreme sports like bungee-jumping and rock climbing. These activities are not bad in-and-off-themselves, but can become addictions if a person uses them compulsively in order to mood alter.
- Video stimulation addiction: Another addiction that relies on the mechanism of shifting attention. Television, video-games and other forms of entertainment can serve as ways to distract myself away from my present experience in a similar fashion as with intellectual and work addiction.
In the end, all addictions are coping strategies to manage emotional pain coming from past hurt inflicted by abuse/trauma. These coping strategies do not work long-term, but only help a person to survive and remain functional in society in the short-term. In the end, what works long-term is to process and complete the pain from past abuse/trauma.
This option only becomes available when there is space for emotional processing and completion in a person’s Life. If Life is ‘stressful enough as it is’, there is no way that people will go into processing their past pain.
The next book piece will be dropped at Monday January 16th on the topic of Pain and Hurt… Also a new Nutrition post is coming up on Carbohydrate Addiction.
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