Addiction doesn’t start when substance is used. Addiction starts in the brain, where the environment that surrounds that person at home, work, school has literally shaped that person’s mind. In last week’s post, I talked about how the family literally determines the mindset of children. You can see more of that post here. Our responses to stress influence us and our children. When parents are stressed or anxious, this decreases an infant’s ability to regulate their own mind as well. This is not to give addiction the excuse, “I had poor regulation due to my environment”, but only reveal that addiction is not just about making a decision about whether to have a drink or not, or whether to smoke weed or not. Every addiction has brain chemistry behind it.
Self regulation is not defined as “good behaviour”, but as mind integration; where there is balance between all of the mind’s functions of fight or flight, problem solving, creativity, differentiation (where others emotions do not define your own), etc. Self regulation depends highly on environment. A person with good regulation does not shift up and down dramatically from emotion to emotion, but is able to overcome when life’s challenges come their way. This is called resilience. When a person suffers with a disregulated mind, their emotional life and behavior can seem out of control. Much of what is hindered is in the prefrontal cortex, where our ability to creatively problem solve and learn social interaction comes from. When someone is disregulated, they may struggle socially, which ironically is exactly what they need in order to escape addiction. Research showed in rats with destroyed frontal cortex’s were only able to function immaturely, showed signs of impulsive aggression and being sexually inappropriate. The disfunction in the mind is what opens the path to addictive behaviors, not because the person woke up wanting to be addicted, but because the pain caused by the dysfunction and the irregulated mind pushed them towards it. All because of one thing:
Dopamine, where we get an old slang word for marijuana, is the key chemical in the mind involved in addiction. All addictions seek to appease it. Dopamine is about feeling the reward of stimulating what a disregulated mind is missing: connection. But because of poor Prefrontal Cortex development or damage, social skills are lacking to create this. Substances don’t require social skills. In fact, they promise to assist with it, or so it seems. These “substances” that increase the dopamine in the mind don’t have to be drugs or alcohol, they can be anything we attach to to give us that “fix” such as shopping, eating, sugar, sex, extreme sports, instagram likes, video games; all of these activate the same chemical dope that drug and alcohol addictions do. And the more you fill the brain’s chemicals need with your substance of choice, the more it will need next time to get that fix of dopamine released in the mind. What’s even crazier; dopamine release acts even before the partaking of the substance. It is arroused even with familiar sights and smells that signal to the brain that your drug is near. And we wonder why it’s so hard to quit? That chemical wants to be satisfied and is literally playing with your mind till you get it.
It’s not about what your drug is, it’s about the dope you seek to fill what is lacking in the mind that wasn’t provided in your environment.
And so the cycle repeats: The environment that shaped your brain regulation that caused the need for dopamine increase in your mind that initated your addiction has now led to a creation of the environment you are creating that only continues to damage your decision making abilities and shape your disregulated mind into needing more dope, feeding more addiction. And around and around we go. “It’s sometimes like with my addiction…. I’m a child not released” (from In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate).
See how it’s not as easy as just going into rehab, or vowing to quit?
We’re not addicted to substance, we’re addicted to the brain chemical called dopamine and it is ruthless.
All is not lost, however. If healthy environment created by loving connection can cause the brain to be regulated, then you and I have a powerful tool. If we are willing to work on the environments we are creating around people, there is hope for US to be the dope others need. I always tell parents with young children; YOU are your child’s dope. Just like substances release dopamine in the mind, so does a loving parent looking into the eyes of their child. It’s all they need. It’s all we all need; to feel the warm effects of belonging to appease the brain chemical in the way it was meant to be satisfied. This keeps addiction at bay. Supportive friendships and healthy communities are the real dope we long for. When we provide that for one another, social issues like addiction don’t stand a chance.
Community is powerful.