How do addictions and compulsions happen?
According to David Disalvo in his book What Makes Your Brain Happy and why You Should do the Opposite; “Our brains are equipped with a reward center that serves to adaptively motivate behaviors that benefit us. Without this drive to seek out pleasurable experience we would be very dreary.
This center is called the mesolimbic reward center. It is like an unprotected power grid that can be high jacked from external forces. These forces make use of the same reward circuitry. The problem is that the new rewards are usually not beneficial. Our brains suffer a type of reward distinction blindness and new imprints are integrated into the grid. (Koob et al. Neuro circuitry of Addiction)
The common denominator of in all compulsive behaviors is a mal functioning reward center. Whether it is drug abuse, addiction to the internet, video games, gambling, sex, or over eating the same underlying dynamic facilitates compulsive continuation and intensification of the behavior. (Disalvo)
Research on rats found that stimulation of the reward centers of their brains made them become compulsive. Rats trained to press a bar that activated electrodes in the pleasure center of the brain would not stop pressing the bar – forgoing sleep, eating, drinking or having sex as long as the bar was available. Many starved to death – they never gave up the bar. This explains why meth addicts forgo food, sleep and sex to get more of the substance their brain craves. The more the reward is sought the more the craving and the compulsive behavior is reinforced.
Dopamine is often called the reward neurotransmitter. It is essential to our survival but a potent enemy within when our brains reward circuitry is overwhelmed with the wrong types of rewards. When it comes to technology, Dr. Gary Small, in his book, ibrain, found that someone with compulsive tendencies and (there are estimates of 50 million people in this country) is predisposed to a range of addictive behaviors and technology has a way of accelerating the process.
Carl Jung pointed out to the founders of AA “that the craving for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness – an implicit attempt to connect with a higher power”.
Alcohol or any mood altering drug offers a brief promise of this connectedness and then yanks it away. One must continue in order to anesthetize this new pain and so it goes. (James Hollis, Swamplands of the Soul) “Whatever structure we have erected to bolster our shaky sense of self, our addictive patterns are defenses against anxiety whether we know it or not.” (Hollis p. 90) All addictions and compulsions are anxiety management techniques. As the anxiety mounts, we indulge in repetitive patterns that allow us to connect briefly before the angst and emptiness return. This is a good description of what a living hell is like. As Hollis writes “what cannot be born consciously will be projected onto a person, a substance, a behavior … Compulsions narrow life down until there is no living – existence perhaps but no living. “
So in addition to overcoming the physical addiction and highjacking of our reward center, which is very difficult, Hollis also states; “the guilt and shame linked to our short comings erodes the strength needed to confront the unthinkable.” To go down in the anxiety state to feel what we really feel is to go through and break the tyranny of the timeless emotions that haunt us” .
Suggested readings and references
Swamplands of the Soul – New Life in Dismal Places. James Hollis 1996 Inner City Books
Under Saturn’s Shadow – The Wounding and Healing of Men James Hollis 1994 Inner City Books
What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite. David Disalvo Prometheus Books 2011.
Neurocircutiry of Addiction, George f. Koob et al. Neuropsychophamarcology 35 Jan. 2010