New research shows that addictive behaviour although initially voluntary can spiral out of control as the brain’s neural circuitry becomes overloaded and then rewires. Your brain control function then becomes weakened and you have difficulty in controlling your urges and your addictive behaviour becomes compulsive.
How does this sorry state of affairs come to pass? After all, we have had thousands of years of evolution to get this sorted. The very problem appears to be with evolution itself as our brain has been designed to be very adept at responding to stimuli. However, our brain wasn’t well prepared for the intense stimulus overload of the modern world.
Plasticity is a function of the ability of your brain to make new connections: As thoughts flow through your brain, networks of neurons join your brain cells together. The more you do something the stronger the connections become. All well and good, until those connections are the wrong ones. So your brain becomes a “Brian” having wired itself up incorrectly.
The brain works by making connections between brain cells and the more these connections are made the stronger they become. Similarly, you could think about patterns of thought as working in the same way, flowing along these connections. So we do something, get a good feeling, and we are more likely to repeat that behaviour which will then result in a release of “feel good potion” /(chemical neurotransmitters) etc. . Addictive behaviour of all types is a learned behaviour. This learned behaviour becomes automatic – so automatic in fact, that we no longer pay it very much conscious attention, it just happens.
Your behaviour will have been learnt well: your brain will have been busy rewiring itself to your addictive habit. It won’t just have learnt the behaviour but will have cleverly made connections to moods, feelings, situations, people, visual cues (triggers) and so on. A simple example is that you might have a trigger of a bookies sign or the paper dropping through the letterbox (racing pages). This complex network of connections is one reason why addictive behaviour is quite difficult to stop.
200 Women before Dawn?
What about if you could get the same fix but twice as intense? Well in today’s society you nearly always can. Food, porn and gambling are particularly problematic as they are all available “on-tap” and are difficult to avoid. Why not get your fix of gambling by betting on televised racing which you can play back later at high speed? Internet porn allows you to have 200 women before breakfast. These activities give a buzz at the time and your behaviour is reinforced. It is easy step to do this to feel the buzz when you feel down or depressed. And it is here that your problems really start as you learn addictive, automatic responses to such things as anxiety, stress, loneliness, boredom and so on.
Unfortunately, your brain adapts to this high level of stimulus and “damps down” its response. You crave more stimulus to get the same fix and you get trapped inside this vicious circle. Not only that, but you end up feeling bad about yourself as you find you cannot get yourself out of this. Which then makes you repeat your addictive behaviour, which makes you feel bad and so on. The changes in brain chemicals bought about by the addictive behaviour also affect the frontal brain and impairs the executive function. This means that you become more impulsive. You neural pathways have created a “Brian”.
Your challenge is to unlearn these maladaptive responses and rewire. See part II which will come as soon as I’ve written it…
Ken McLeish is Principal Therapist at Reflexions Counselling and Therapy in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Reflexions provides counselling and therapy for a range of issues including addictions. He can be contacted through the website: https://counselling-newcastle.co.uk .
Information contained in this blog is not a substitute for face-to-face therapy. It can only every be one view of a situation and may not be applicable to your situation. You are advised to seek specialist support for treatment for addictions. The work here is a personal view which may change over time and should not be taken as representative of Reflexions Counselling and Psychotherapy.