I know addiction is a killer. But is it also a faulty survival mechanism?

 

Disclaimer: I make no attempt to glamorise addiction or make light of the subject matter. It is a life threatening disease that claims the lives of many.  

 


 

It is often said that it doesn’t matter too much what the addicts drug of choice is; whether it be food, drugs, sex, love etc… the problem lies in the addicts inability to tolerate reality. Addiction provides a temporary escape route for what seems to be a painful existence.

Research suggests a strong link between childhood trauma and addiction. One study suggests childhood trauma was ‘common’ within addicts. I wouldn’t want to proclaim a causation but it seems there’s definitely a correlation between trauma and people using ‘drugs’ as a ‘coping mechanism’. This particular study concentrated on Heroin addicts and how they used drugs to blot out ‘distressing thoughts and feelings’. Hammersley, et al., (2016).

 
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I have often wondered if the afflicted person did not have these addictions to ‘rely’ on; is it possible that they might not have the ability to continue(?)

To understand addiction it is vital to understand how the brain works and why it would allow us to indulge in behaviours and addictions that are obviously harmful to us?

The everyday brain we are familiar with and we interact with all day every day is called the ‘new brain’. It dictates what you’re going to have for dinner, your diary management, deciding what to wear, problem solving and so on. There’s a level of consciousness because you are able to ‘some extent’ dictate what you think. 

The old brain, however, is buried deep within the unconscious.  Your old brain doesn’t care about what errands you have to run today, or what you’re going to be doing on the weekend. It’s main (and one could say only motive) is to keep you alive. 

A good few centuries ago our main worries were things like …. has my family and I got enough food to eat? Is my life in danger? Is our shelter adequately protected? Obviously concerns like these are still valid today but instead of worrying about you and your family being killed by a saber tooth tiger you may fear losing your job or your house because it signals to your old brain there is a risk to your survival and possibly your families survival.

Note: Some call this ‘old brain’ the ‘reptilian brain’ as it goes back to the theory we started  as reptiles. All mammals have a ‘reptilian brain’. 

Triune Brain Theory
Differences in consciousness

 

As you can see the reptilian brain is located in the cerebellum (known as the second brain) and runs down the spinal cord and central nervous system. It’s why you make a split decisions when you feel as though you are in danger. This is also known as ‘black and white’ thinking / all or nothing type of thinking you see in people with high anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder, for example. If you were being chased by a saber tooth tiger you wouldn’t think…. ‘Well I could fight this predator but then I might die in the process. So maybe I will run into that cave. But there may be predators in there too so maybe it’s best if I fight this big cat with my spear’. By the time you’ve thought of all that; you’re dead.

It doesn’t have to be as extreme as a saber tooth tiger. Your nervous system will react to  any perceived threat. The fear of your partner will cheat on you, or losing your wallet and becoming a victim of identity fraud etc… Your old brain doesn’t discriminate between danger; a threat is a threat. Which is why you see people with anxiety are quick to panic or jump to worst case scenario. Their nervous system is in a constant state of threat, so what may seem like a small issue is highly threatening to them. Being in a constant state of hyper vigilance is exhausting for nervous system which is why anxiety and depression often goes hand in hand. The exhaustion of the nervous system often results in a catalyst for depression.  

Then why doesn’t the brain protect us from addiction seeing as its so deadly?

Trauma is known to rewire the brain (especially pre-developmental). So maybe the old brain views reality as the threat(?) Therefore it would make sense that addiction is a way to ‘ease the pain’ in order to survive. 

You’re old brain is in control of your flight, fight and freeze reactions. American Science Journalist and Trauma Expert Seth Porges points out the injustice of the court system in regards to sexual assault trauma. Many women (and men) are doubted or antagonised for the way the reacted during the attack. The victim doesn’t always have a choice. With that amount of fear and adrenaline pumping around the body the old brain overrides the new brain, and more often than not, the reaction of the victim is to freeze and disassociate. This is a trauma reaction and is not within control of the victim. 

You can learn more about it here.

 


 

So in short the old brain’s job is to protect you and keep you safe even if the methods don’t always make sense. You can sense when the old brain is threatened as adrenaline normally starts pumping through your blood stream and thoughts start racing. But as we know the brain doesn’t know the difference between being chased by a saber tooth tiger or bumping into your ex with his new girlfriend. Old brain only knows the language of threat.

What has this got to do with addiction?

Well as we’ve seen addiction and trauma are intrinsically linked. Maybe if this ‘freeze’ and dissociate element is a reaction to trauma; then maybe the denial of reality and indulgence of addiction is part of the ‘freeze/dissociation’ mechanism in the brain(?) Just a thought. 

Even though addiction may destroy lives and even worse kill. Addiction wouldn’t be so powerful if it didn’t have some of survival pay off. It may have been imperative that the person suffering needed to escape reality in order to stay alive. 

Fantasy is another form of addiction. This is common with abuse victims. They have an almost out of body experience and go into ‘another world’ so they don’t have to be present in the body that is being hurt. If this has been happening since childhood how are they supposed to know any other way to be?

I had a friend who appeared to have it all. Good looks, great job, great prospects but was heavily addicted to cocaine. He once explained when he became ‘sober’ he would go out with friends and not know what to do or how to behave. It seems this disease becomes so enmeshed with your sense of self its almost impossible to imagine yourself or your life without it. 

 

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Addiction is also the master of deception. It disguises itself as something else, which makes it so malevolent. The alcoholic is now the ‘wine connoisseur’. The love addicts inability to be on their own is just because Mr Right hasn’t turned up yet to save her from these disastrous relationships. The exercise addict is ‘super healthy’ despite the fact her periods have stopped or keeps exercising despite injuries just to get that ‘buzz’. 

Maybe it could be described as a type of anaesthesia(?) Alcohol is often referred to as ‘self medication’ which supports the idea of escapism for the addict. There’s a fine line between when something is used to help you get through hard time and when it becomes a dependence or a life long crutch.

At this point I refer to one of my favourite stories.  

A boy needed to cross a rapid river. The water is too wild for him to swim solo, so he strips a tree of it’s bark in order to utilise it as a boat to get across. He is successful.

The boy needs to now climb a mountain (don’t ask me why). He begins to climb with this self made boat attached to his back. The bark becomes a burden and slows him down with it’s weight making it impossible for the boy to climb the mountain. 

As you can see this bark (coping mechanism) had been useful before; but now it’s become a hindrance.

I personally think that one of the reasons it is so difficult to give up an addiction is because A) its been a massive part of the persons life; like a friend who has stuck by you through thick and thin (albeit a toxic friend but a friend nevertheless). B) There is normally a fear of having to deal with the painful emotions and truths that the addiction puts a vanilla glaze over. C) There is more often than not a lack of healthy coping mechanisms within the addict and poor emotional regulation. It’s been theorised that trauma and addiction often stunts the persons emotional growth process. Therefore when the addict becomes clean they are often mentally a lot younger than other people their age. They have to learn to reparent themselves and grow into an adult. This takes tremendous strength, and often people who look down on addicts have no idea what the person has been through to turn out the way they have. The fact they are alive is often remarkable as addiction kills many.

 

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Of course not everyone who experiences trauma in their life turns to addiction. But I’d say the majority experience some sort of dependence to alleviate pain. 

I’d always considered addiction to be affiliated with just drugs and alcohol. I didn’t realise how addiction can bleed into pretty much all areas of your life. 

I’ve heard from (mainly women) about being addicted to men, money and munchies. This is when I first started to worry as I know this trinity rang true to my ‘issues’ at the time. 

I’ve just come out of the probably the two worst years of my life. And these ‘coping mechanisms aka addictions’ were in full force. When I felt one got better the others would get worse. It was like a really infuriating game of ‘whack a mole’!

Men = I’d become addicted to toxic relationships

Money = I was worried about money. So to make myself feel better I’d spend.

Munchies = I’d stuff myself full of food to the point I’d feel physically sick. Then punish myself with a grueling exercise regime to ‘compensate’ for the binge. 

 

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With drugs and alcohol you can stop by just putting it down. (Obviously with the support of a professional. I would not advocate doing this by yourself). But with the trinity addiction, you need all these things. You can’t just not eat. 

I knew I had an obsessive personality but never considered myself to have an addictive one as well. I figured I gave up smoking; How could I be an addict?!

It’s only when I went through the withdrawal process I realised how much I was dependant on these things. It was horrendous, absolutely horrendous. How could I feel this bad for cleaning myself up from things people ‘use’ in everyday and didn’t have an issue with? I can’t imagine how awful it must be coming off heroin; going through mental and physical withdrawal at the same time.

If I were to describe withdrawal I’d say it was like having your safety blanket ripped off you and being exposed to all the things your desperately tried to run away from.  When I ‘indulged’ in my addictions it wasn’t the same feeling as indulging in a bad habit. The behaviour and feeling came more from a life and death section of my brain (the fight or flight mechanism from the old brain). I knew what I was doing wasn’t helpful, but the comfort and momentary relief from uncomfortable feelings was too overwhelming to resist. I talk more about my food issues in Part 2: I want to lose weight but I don’t like exercise and love food too much. #Help!! 🍟🥨🍭

Hardy, et al., (2018) suggested female participants with food addictions had a higher emotional dysregulation scores, specifically with difficulties in goal directed behaviors, non-acceptance of emotional responses, impulse control, limited access to emotion regulation strategies, and lack of emotional clarity, when compared to individuals with no addiction. 

I think people who don’t know about addiction assume its greediness or a lack of discipline. It’s not. I remember someone saying to me ‘why don’t you eat things that are healthy for your body, and stop when you’re full?’ If it was just about that it would be a lot easier to manage. Again it’s not about the drug of choice it’s about the way we rely on it to validate ourselves and/or alleviate pain. I could have easily become addicted to exercise or work (these seem like more socially acceptable addictions) but I didn’t. So maybe I shouldn’t refer to it as ‘a drug of choice’, maybe the addiction choses you. Why does one person become a workaholic and another becomes a heroin addict?

I guess if you have an addictive personality you have the potential to become addicted to anything(?) If it’s not about the individuality of the addiction but the behaviour to overindulge to escape reality that pinpoints where the problem lies. 

I’ve seen people put ‘down’ an addiction and follow a spiritual path. Only they seem to use spirituality as a crutch again. Admittedly it’s better for them and everyone around them that they are addicted to spirituality as against alcohol, for example. Maybe some people are unable to do things in moderation; it really is all or nothing. It just becomes teeth grindingly annoying when some preach about how you should live your life the way they do no matter how compassionate I try and be. 

But I guess we are all trying to bumble our way through this life; and none of us are living it ‘perfectly’. There is no ‘how to’ book on how to live your life (despite the amount of self help books that proclaim this). Addicts are trying to manage a brain that tells them life is dangerous. And they are so starved of compassion that a promise to ‘feel good’ even for just a second makes the danger and toxicity ‘worth it’. 

Remember those Ipswich murders a few years back. Girls were risking their lives with clients who were potential murderers for that ‘fix’. It seems to go against everything the old brain stands for. But maybe the paradox of addiction is that the ‘fix’ is the lifeline; even if it means putting your own life in danger(?)

 
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These are my own views I am in no way an addiction specialist. I have used journal citations to support my thoughts, but again this is just an opinion piece not intended to offend. 

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this post. If you feel you may have an addiction problem please do seek help. You are not alone. There are many support groups out there that help with food, love, sex, gambling, work, drugs, alcohol, money etc… addictions. You don’t have to be at rock bottom to seek help. If it’s stopping you living the life you want, then it’s a problem.

I’ll be writing one most post this year then that’s it until next year as I travel to Asia for a month in 8 days which I’m so excited about! Will be back 18th of January and then it’s back to Uni and weekly blog posts.

 

Warmest Regards