One definition of addiction is a compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite its negative consequences. When the repetitive behavior results in the individual experiencing legal, health, relationship, and/or vocation problems, that individual most likely has an addiction.
How do we acquire an addiction? Some of us are genetically predisposed to acquiring an addiction(s). Another subset of the population may develop an addiction in an attempt to distract themselves from distressing thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. Of course, increasing the probability one will develop an addiction is if both conditions are present.
The human brain has evolved to make efficiency a priority. Addiction are habits. And habits are efficient. Once the habit is established, the brain will resist all attempts to change it.
There are four areas of the brain that are linked to the formation of an addiction or habit.
1. The Anterior Cingulate Gyrus: This is the area of the brain responsible for logic-reasoning-and attention. We can call this area the “Director.
2. The second area of the brain linked to developing an addiction is the Orbitofrontal Cortex: This area maintains a list of options for dealing with stressful situations. We can call this area the “List Keeper.”
3. Next is the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex: This area is responsible for offering strategies or steps for executing the Director’s plan. Thus, the title of “The Planner.”
4. Finally, the Amygdala and portions of the Striatal system are crucial in developing an addiction. Sometimes referred to as the “The Responder” it demands the easiest and quickest response possible to escape stressful situations. The Responder is merciless in demanding to feel better, feel good, get a rush.
The script for this drama might look something like this: You are on your way home from a long hard day at the office when you get caught in a traffic jam.
Responder: “I’m stressed… list keeper get over here right now!! What is first on the list for relieving stress?”
List Keeper: “Well in the past, going to a strip club relieved stress.”
Responder: “Great! Planner where is the nearest strip club?”
Planner: “Here is a map of the nearby strip clubs.”
Director: “Wait a minute. Let’s think this over logically.”
It’s too late. The Director is hijacked by all the drama and emotion (dopamine and endorphins) blocking all attempts at logical decision making. It is a mutiny! The Director gives up and abdicates the role of Director, thereby allowing the overly dramatic Responder to take control.
A few hours later while leaving the strip club…
Director: “Why did I give in again?”
The Director was caught in the “Avoidance Cycle.” The Avoidance Cycle is set after the fourth, fifth, or one-hundredth declaration we are all familiar with, “I am never doing that again. I am determined to do better.”
What is the Avoidance Cycle? It is humankind’s or at least Western culture’s strategy for avoiding situations. Other mediating variables in the formation of the avoidance cycle are the individual’s temperament and the environment in which the person was raised.
Most of us have been raised to believe that if we are secure in ourselves and have enough faith, we can resist any temptation. Some of us were told anger, fear, or sadness is signs of weakness and to be avoided. The problem is the more we resist try our distressing thoughts, feelings, urges, sensations the more salient they become.
To make the point avoidance/resistance is not a workable solution, I often ask my clients to NOT think of a pink elephant. We all know the outcome. Try as we might, the more we try not to think of the pink elephant, the more salient the thought becomes. Proving attempts to resist or avoid distressing thoughts is never the long term answer.
Resistance then is the first step in the Avoidance Cycle, followed by surrender to the Responders emotional, dramatic demands, followed by shame, guilt, and secrecy. Ending in “I’ll never do that again” (until the next time he/she is triggered by boredom, burn out, loneliness, anger, fear, sadness, stress, or fatigue).
Is there a way to stop the cycle? Absolutely. It isn’t easy but basically we use the same steps in developing maladaptive habits to establish habits that are consistent with our values and results in a fulfilling, meaningful life.