Addiction: we joke about it sometimes, saying things like, “I’m addicted to chocolate” or “I’m addicted to a certain TV show.” Actually, every one of us is capable of getting addicted to something, because addiction involves three things: a sense of reward when indulging, continued indulging when we know it’s harming us, and a craving that leads to loss of control. Something in your head keeps pushing you into the addiction, and you find it hard or impossible to resist. Why?
Almost one in ten people in the U.S. are addicted to some substance — alcohol or some other drug. Two-thirds of those abuse alcohol. Sorry, but marijuana is addictive as well, as are some prescription drugs. Addiction is continually giving in to primal urges when we know we shouldn’t, and resisting is more than we can handle. How does this happen?
The Ventral Pallidum
Have you ever heard of that? Not many have, yet without it nothing would seem pleasurable or motivate us to do more. It is a portion of the brain, made up of neurons, that acts as a pathway for the processing of the sense of “reward” for doing something and the craving for it. Normally, this is good: we are driven to satisfy hunger: without that drive, we wouldn’t bother to eat and would starve. The brain is highly complex, with many portions interacting to drive us. Some drives are very primal, such as drinking when thirsty. But some drives are developed: we learn that something is pleasurable or avoids discomfort, so we are driven to it. You have to learn that a drug will make you feel better before you have any craving to swallow the pill. We also have the reverse reaction: we learn something that causes discomfort is to be avoided, and then we are driven to avoid it, being repulsed at the very thought of it.
Published in Science Advances, researchers at the University of Washington discovered something amazing: they were able to shift the sense of reward in the ventral pallidum artificially to cause different desires. By shifting the reaction of “reward”, they were able to strike at the source of addiction. In their study, a taste for sugar was turned into an aversion to it.
An article published in the US National Library of Medicine reported that drug-addicted patients that developed lesions in the ventral pallidum region “reported the disappearance of all drug cravings”. Unfortunately they also lost other motivation as well, and depression set in. This proved that the primal urges for addictive drugs could be interrupted when damage to a portion of the brain occurs, but that is hardly a path to wellness.
While scientists can cause shifts in the reward cycle and cravings, they cannot tune the brain to prefer healthy behaviors. The brain is highly complex, and the ventral pallidum works in concert with other portions of the brain to develop responses. Brain neurons make connections with other neurons as they are “trained” by their environment — stimulations from the environment produce new neural connections in response. Artificial stimulation produces immediate change, but without the precision that natural learning and training gives. We can artificially show that cravings and our sense of reward can be impacted, but it’s through the higher brain that we “teach” and control the primal.
We have the power
Science can turn a taste for sugar into an aversion, but people can also reduce their desire for sugar by making healthy substitutions. After a while, high sugar foods taste “too sweet”. As we gravitate to healthy alternatives, we train our cravings to accept and even prefer them. Even exercise can become “addictive” when we feel the benefits and find we can actually enjoy the workouts. Simply recognizing that an activity is healthy and dwelling on the benefits of that activity creates a desire for it. Or “getting sick of being sick” can be a motivation to change as we create a desire to get better.
Reacting to reward and craving desires is called the “hedonic” response — it is primal, and related to the term “hedonism”, which means continually giving in to the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of discomfort. People who have sought out pleasure as a way of life describe what is called the “hedonic paradox” — where they tire of their pursuits and it requires more and more to achieve the same amount of pleasure. At some point, the pursuit of pleasure can actually turn deadly, as addiction turns to overdose. In our modern world, we have more ways than ever before to pursue pleasure, making addiction all the easier.
The difference between hedonic response and real life? In life when we make a new pattern to bring us to a higher level of knowledge and understanding, sometimes it causes some discomfort. No one is trying to avoid the pain, but just are making sure the pain produces a permanent improvement in one’s life. Anyone who has trained for a gold medal knows that it takes knowing of what you are giving up to receive what you seek after.
This quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne sums it up: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
Making the break
All of us are prone to addiction, if only in mild ways, when we give in to unhealthy urges. Stress, past trauma, and toxins train our primal responses negatively. Choices we make can train them positively. Many publications on breaking addictions start with the need for decision: we must decide to change. Then we get rid of temptations where possible — don’t “play with fire” by keeping a stock of unhealthy foods or other temptations within reach. Then we associate with others who support us and encourage us to make good choices and to stick with them. If we seek needed help, it is not shameful — it is wisdom.
In the Word, primal temptations are called “the flesh”. We are told to master the flesh; in other words, recognize and put primal desires under our control. We have a gift that has only been given to humans — the ability to know right and wrong, good or bad, and to choose between them. Animals can’t make those distinctions, but we can. And as we also learn, “the flesh” is constantly trying to control us. Giving into it leads to the hedonic paradox.
Happiness and joy have a remarkable association. Happiness can be fleeting and short-lived, but joy remains and gives off happiness as a by-product. Joy comes from a deep sense of purpose and value, and from believing that your future is secure, that things will work together for good. Health follows joy which brings happiness. The Harvard School of Public Health cites a study of 6000 people over 20 years where key factors — sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, and engagement in life — significantly reduced the risk of coronary heart disease. This is only one of many studies showing clear links between a good mental attitude and health.
Addiction is bondage. Health and happiness proceed from being free of harmful addictions. Joy comes from a secure, purposeful, and free life. And help is available to get you there.
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
If there are physical areas in the brain that can be artificially stimulated to change a response from addicting sweet taste to being repulsed by it, how much more powerful is your mind, your choice, your decision over your body? How do you begin this you ask? The answer is quite basic. Begin with knowledge and grow into deep understanding and then you will see the transformation in your actions. Exercise is very painful the first 4 to 8 weeks, but after that you have not only convinced yourself of the physical and mental/emotional benefits, you now after these 8 weeks have a deeper understanding of how you feel, how much less stressed you are, and how much clearer your mind and focus are — along with how much better you sleep and how much more energy you have. This is the new program you have just established permanently in your mind. That’s why, once people have these components, the new program is for life.
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