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Why Addiction Is More Than Drugs

In the 1970s, an American psychologist by the name of Dr. Bruce Alexander, coined an experiment, the “Rat Park”. In his experiment, Alexander set up an environment for his test rats in which they were among other rats with the opportunity to play, connect, socialize, eat good food and have sex.  These rats in the ‘rat park’ had both access to a drug solution and plain water; the experiment delineated the social rats preferring plain water over the drug solution, even when they had consumed the drug solution. When caged, isolated rats who consumed the drug water, were moved to the rat park, they voluntarily went through withdrawal and preferred the social life to the drug’s effects [1]. The finding concluded that rather than the drug feeding the addiction, it was psychological factors, such as isolation, lack of connection, loneliness, lack of control, and hopelessness. This concept extends beyond the world of rats to humans. In a TedTalk on addiction, Johann Hari, shared of a ‘human experiment’ reaching similar conclusions. In the Vietnam war, 20% of American troops consumed copious amounts of heroin, which led people to believe that when they returned from war, the heroin use would continue to be a problem. When these soldiers returned home, they did not admit themselves to rehab nor did they go through withdrawal [2]. Now what does this tell us? It tells us that as we look differently at the source of addiction, we look differently at recovery. If addiction is about our cages, then recovery is about our freedom.

Let’s discuss the implications of these findings on addiction. Addiction stems from need; all humans experience a need to bond and connect with something, but with addiction that need is distorted into a maladaptive dependence on something, whether that is cocaine, alcohol, pornography, marijuana, food, or technology. People seek substances as a sense of relief from a variety of afflictions, including trauma, isolation, sensitivity to rejection, societal disruption, impulsiveness, and mental health issues.  They can help someone alter their feelings from negative to positive, decrease overwhelming emotions to better manage them, improve ability, find a sense of belonging, and avoid being in the present. These connections become a reward circuit; overtime the use of a substance increases as its impact decreases i.e. it requires more use just to achieve the same effects at the start of use. Substances create an overwhelming, oversized surge in the brain’s reward system, leading users to seek the substance to continue to experience the strong feel-good emotions while negatively impacting the functioning of the brain. Addiction perpetuates in society due to stigma, shame, and punishment; we effectively cage ourselves by putting up barriers and limitations rather than finding healthier connections and reasons to get out of bed in the morning. Addiction is not simply a chemical problem, but a cultural, psychological, social, and biological phenomenon.  What does this story of addiction mean for recovery?

Recovery incorporates connection and bonding similarly to addiction; however, the importance rests in the distinction of ‘what ‘and ‘how’ we connect to something. If we can form habits within addiction and change the synapses in the brain while using, imagine what we are capable of when sober. While easier said than done, it can be empowering to know that we can unlearn these maladaptive connections to form stronger synaptic pathways that better meet our needs and create healthy behavioral activation. If addiction is about being unable to cope in the present moment, it makes sense that recovery is about wanting to be present for your life because you have connection, support, love, employment, goals, people who care about you or people to take care of, and a future to look forward to. We can learn to feel connected, under control, regulated, purposeful, whole, and motivated, rather than exist in a state of mind, like the caged rats, that fosters the need to numb or heighten emotions for a sense of relief, comfort, or a different feeling. Those caged rats did not have the opportunity for recovery so they were not able to pursue it. Recovery is therefore about connection to people, places, and things, building a life worth living i.e. finding your rat park vs living in an isolated cage. If you are interested in learning more about addiction and recovery, connect with a therapist for professional support. 

References: 

  1. Addiction: The View from Rat Park (2010). Brucekalexander.com. https://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/148-addiction-the-view-from-rat-park
  2. Johann Hari. (2015). Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong. In TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong

Meet The Author

Michaela Quinley, Clinical Therapist at Sea Glass Mental Health

MICHAELA QUINLEY

MC, LAC

Meet The Author

Michaela is a Clinical Counselor at Sea Glass Mental Health. She works with teen, couples, and adult populations. Michaela specializes in treating  anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. 

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