Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

Addictive Behaviors

How this affects addictive behaviors

When we are uncomfortable, stressed, or feeliag unsafe, our brains are wired to seek safety.  Remember our infant self, gazing into our caregiver’s eyes? That connection makes endorphins flow, which makes us feel safety.  But many drugs of abuse, especially opiates, alcohol, and other sedatives do the same thing.  


We talked earlier about the highways that the brain chemicals to travel on, and the factories that produce them. Much of our brain development happens in the first three years of life, and these highways and chemicals develop through the connections we form with our caregivers as an infant. So if our caregivers weren’t able to give us the attention, connection and love we needed to soothe our hurts or meet our needs, these brain chemicals and their “highways” didn’t develop correctly. 


That means we might grow up never really knowing what it feels like to have large quantities of these brain chemicals flowing in our brains. We may not be able to feel love, connection, and joy the same way as someone who got those connections as an infant.  So when we’re stressed, upset, hurt, angry, or depressed, we may not have the chemicals in our brains that help us to feel better.


But guess what? Drugs of abuse mimic those chemicals, and make them available to our brain. So for those of us who grew up without the connection that builds the highways and factories that let them flow, the very first time we drink alcohol, or take a Vicodin or a Xanax, or whatever our drug of choice is, we’re able to feel those things for the first time. Or feel them much more powerfully than we ever have.


Other drugs of abuse stimulate other brain chemicals that do similar things. Dopamine is a brain chemical that makes life interesting and exciting. It’s what flows when we eat tasty food, or go to an awesome concert, or watch a movie we really enjoy, or, really, anything that we enjoy. And the factories and highways for it, too, develop in our infancy, based on the experiences we have with those around us, and the things in our environment.


So if dopamine is deficient, we might see life as really boring, in black-and-white.  And the first time we take, say, an Adderall or Ritalin, or perhaps even smoke a cigarette or a joint, suddenly our whole world lights up, because we are seeing things the rest of the world. Of course, all drugs of abuse stimulate dopamine, but some more than others, so most everyone who has an addiction of some kind feels a boost of dopamine.


So when we look at just these two brain chemicals (and there are lots of others with equally important functions), who doesn’t want to feel normal? Who doesn’t want to experience joy, happiness, inner peace, a sense of connection? Who doesn’t want excitement and pleasure?


And so, for those of us whose brains didn’t develop to feel them, that’s why the drugs are so addictive. That’s why it’s so difficult to go “Oh, I won’t do that any more.” That’s why the cravings are so strong.  Because we feel, perhaps for the first time, a sense of love, connection, joy that we’ve never felt. 

Other environmental factors play a significant role, especially for people that have been historically marginalized, those from economically disadvantaged areas, or those with other high ACE risk factors. We do not deeply explore secondary environmental factors in later lessons, so for populations where these factors are likely strong contributors, it may be advisable to spend extra time on this section and expand discussion individually and with the family.