The Gateway to Freedom: Understanding the Chemistry of Addiction
Love. We are all addicted to love indeed. Not just the idea, not just the feeling, but the neurochemistry of love. The experience of love favorably changes our neurophysiology in both mind and body. When we experience love, our body produces its own natural opiates, endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters. Among these chemicals is oxytocin, often called our “love hormone” because of its crucial role in mother–child relationships, social bonding, and intimacy (oxytocin levels soar during sex).
Interestingly, oxytocin has also been shown to mitigate fear. When oxytocin is administered to people with certain anxiety disorders, activity declines in the amygdala—the primary fear center in the brain. As a result, people feel less fearful. Thus exogenous oxytocin, along with other fear-reducing compounds in clinical development, may eventually be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other fear-related conditions.
Addicted to Love
We are hard-wired for love. Our bodies crave love as much as oxygen and water. Many people do not realize that the neurochemistry produced through love is the same neurochemistry produced by the brain while engaging in addictive behaviors. Thus addiction may breed easily in a person starving for love. Love and addiction have the same initial chemical impact on the body–mind connection. According to studies of the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the sensation of love is processed in three areas of the brain.
Area 1: Ventral Tegmental Area (Dopamine)
The first area is the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a clump of tissue in the brain’s lower regions that is the body’s central refinery for dopamine. Dopamine performs many functions but primarily regulates reward. Winning the lottery can produce a thrilling rush of dopamine. Remarkably, the VTA also becomes active when one feels the rush of cocaine.
Area Two: Nucleus Accumbens (Oxytocin)
Thrill signals that start in the lower brain are then processed in the nucleus accumbens via dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. New mothers are flooded with oxytocin during labor and nursing, supporting a strong connection to their babies. According to neuroscientists,
However, since the initial links were made between the nucleus accumbens and reward, it has been discovered that dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens rise in response to both rewarding and aversive stimuli [emphasis added]. This finding led to a re-evaluation of the functions of the nucleus accumbens, and indeed of the functions of dopamine as a neurotransmitter. The most widely accepted perspective now is that dopamine levels don’t rise only during rewarding experiences but instead rise anytime we experience something that can be deemed either positive or negative.
Area 3: The Caudate Nuclei (Dopamine)
The last major area for love signals in the brain are the caudate nuclei, a pair of structures on either side of the head, each about the size of a shrimp. It’s here that patterns and mundane habits, such as knowing how to drive a car or cook spaghetti, are stored.
CAU: Cause to Pause
The caudate nucleus integrates complex emotions and thoughts about love. The caudate nuclei (CAU) are all about making choices, but they are also connected to addictions because of their role in feeling pleasure, relief, and comfort. In many cases, the reason why a person may choose addiction can be buried in the unconscious, but the caudate nuclei of the brain may hold keys to the pattern. Interestingly, studies have shown that people who have damage to the CAU show repetitive and compulsive behavior. They will keep doing a thing over and over again, even though it’s unnecessary and doesn’t do them any good.
According to neuroscientists,
Researchers speculate that as all of our thoughts, feelings, and motivations associated with love assemble in the caudate, we experience states of bliss.
We Are All Addicts
To some extent, we are all addicts! We are all addicted to love, and when love is seemingly not available, we will reach for anything as a cheap substitute to produce the feel-good chemistry. An addiction is something that causes psychological dependence, so it is a mental and cognitive problem in addition to a physical ailment.5 According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an addiction is classified as a dependence. Dependence is “characterized by compulsive, sometimes uncontrollable, behaviors that occur at the expense of other activities and intensify with repeated access.” I define addiction as follows:
The pattern as placeholder serves as a habituated strategy to look for fulfillment and acceptance of True Authentic Self in something outside of self that is inherently and incessantly empty. In this recognition, there is freedom to recondition awareness and embrace integrity. There is freedom to move from dis-ease to flow in total acceptance — and to choose anew. Addicts are not the addictions; rather, these people are individuals in resonance with habituated, constricted containers of consciousness that perpetuate a behavioral loop. Break the connection with the habit, establish resonance with a different, more useful placeholder that is a reflection of love, and the addictive pattern will transform, dissipate, subside, and cease naturally. The addiction is a bit like looking in the mirror while simultaneously trying to look away. When mired in the addiction, we cannot see ourselves clearly. To me, addictions are more like a two-way mirror aligned between our True Authentic Self and the addictive pattern. A two-way mirror is a mirror that is partially reflective and partially transparent. When one side of the mirror is brightly lit and the other is dark, it allows viewing from the darkened side, but not vice versa. The addict sees the reflection of self as the mirror image of the addictive behaviors and cannot see anything else. What is reflected is based on the filters of what is being projected—addiction as confusion. Conversely, the True Authentic Self can shine light on the addictive pattern and see clearly through the two-way mirror. True Authentic Self can see through the addiction to the truth of the essential self as love. Love is the only placeholder worth keeping, and self-love is the gateway to freedom from all addictions. Love as the placeholder returns the power of choice and provides liberation from the shackles and confines of addictive patterns that subtract from our well-being. To engage by compulsion is to cage without compassion. To engage by choice means the experience of the sum total self as a whole being is occurring without the addiction as placeholder. Addiction is not an addition to self. Addiction subtracts us from recognizing our own inherent completion as one love. According to the preceding definition, we all may be addicted to something. Whether it is drugs, alcohol, food, sex, sugar, shopping, exercise, work, social media, chocolate, drama, or our own story, we are all looking for love, connection, and feelings of completion We are addicted to distractions as placeholders. Certainly some addictions are more detrimental to our lives than others. Some addictions are even deemed healthy, such as exercise and work. Nonetheless, consider that there is no difference between addictions, as all are attempts to connect to self-love from a space of completion. The consequences and Ricochet Effects may be more pronounced with some addictions than with others, but the core impetus driving the placeholder of addiction is always the same: seeking love.
In many ways, we are conditioned for addictions from a young age. Perhaps we would receive a Twinkie or Ding-Dong when we finished all our chores? Perhaps when mom was trying to get work done and we were hungry for attention, mom may have innocuously given us a sugar treat to buy herself some much-needed time. This reward system can prime our bodies for addiction as the mind gets double the love pleasure—a treat from mom and a treat for the body. However, treat or trick? Recent research has shown that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine. Both cocaine and sugar elevate dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens. Prolonged exposure to either causes down-regulation of the dopamine receptors, which means less dopamine becomes available. Over time, more sugar (or drugs) is required to attain normal dopamine levels. This means that, over time, we need processed sugar just to feel normal. We may even be allergic to sugar, which will make us crave it more. We crave what is not good for us too. Recall that dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens rise in response to both rewarding and aversive stimuli. As we grow older, we may switch our addiction from sugar to drugs and alcohol, which might be more “socially acceptable” under the guise of peer pressure. Or perhaps we may continue to eat sugar and then diet to lose the weight, which could lead those more vulnerable to develop eating disorders. Or maybe carbs are what we crave. Perhaps we give up the sugar but add caffeine, as it helps us study and work. Or maybe we don’t think about the soda pop we consume as we spend a few hours playing video games online with friends we have never met.
Social Media Mania
Maybe we think we are clean and free of substance addictions, but we compulsively spend hours a day on Facebook, trolling our newsfeed and other people’s sites. We crave the attention we get from our posts and calibrate our self-worth and popularity based on how many likes we receive. Dopamine levels surge every time someone comments on our posts. We may even argue with people who have varying views and find it thrilling when we can get a rise out of a stranger whom we have the power to block. Perhaps we are plugged in to social media all the time. But not without paying a price. How many real-life friends do we still socialize with in person? Do we substitute real intimacy for the virtual reality of addictive online connections? A recent University of Copenhagen study suggests excessive use of social media can create feelings of envy. It particularly warns about the negative impact of “lurking” on social media without connecting with anyone. The study of more than one thousand participants says that “regular use of social networking such as Facebook can negatively affect your emotional well-being and satisfaction with life.”
Addicted to Drama, Misery, and Negative Attention
Negative attention is still attention, and as we learned earlier, the mind does not distinguish between rewarding stimuli and aversive stimuli before producing endorphins. The dopamine cascade will trigger either way. Hence many are addicted to patterns that may not initially feel good but persist because of the chemistry that is produced as a result. For some, this can look like ongoing drama, perpetual misery, victimhood, or antagonism. We become addicted to the negative attention that feeds our physiology in the same way a drug rush might occur. We can often set this up such that other people are the source of our problems. It’s their fault we have this drama, disappointment, misery, or discontent. As long as other people remain the perpetual source of our drama, disappointment, discontent, and dissatisfaction with our lives, other people will also remain the source of our peace, joy, happiness, personal power, and fulfillment. Addiction to drama is false power created as a polarized reaction to feeling powerless. Drama drains our power no matter what role we may be playing back and forth, victim or perpetrator alike. All actors in the drama are directing life force away from the vortex of the heart into the push– pull linear dynamic of surrogate control. Drama is a tug-of-war with self, and that rope will eventually choke any sense of peace, joy, and semblance of unity with all parties involved. Nobody wins the drama game. Let go of the struggle. Choose to let go and play from the unified field of the heart … a drama-free zone.
Addicted to Company
Many of us are addicted to company. We are not OK being alone. It is important to be comfortable being alone. I used to not be comfortable being alone and consequently chose compromising company. I would hang with people who were neglectful, selfish, narcissistic, and sometimes abusive rather than face my own fear of being alone. Often, as a means of distracting me from myself, I would choose friends who had various forms of addictions. If only I could help them, then I would somehow be OK, I reasoned. Invariably this codependency resulted in my feeling hurt, betrayed, abandoned, and used. I learned to stop expecting reciprocal friendship (and love) from people immersed in their addictions. This is akin to expecting the addictions to love us back. Sometimes we need to know when to hold our friends accountable and when to walk away and love them from afar. Love people, not their addictions. Love yourself enough to say No More. Once I was comfortable with being alone (after uncomfortably trying it), then I was able to connect honestly with myself and find the love that I was seeking, from within. Rather than loneliness, I met my new best friend—me. We are naturally communal beings. However, to some extent, many have bought in to the WE experience at the expense of the individual I—as you and me completion unto I-self. We have by and large become addicted to company such that even the idea of being alone can put us in a tailspin, in a frenzy, or send us spiraling toward our chosen addictions. Being alone is not the reason for addiction. Recent research with rats indicates otherwise. Rat Park was a study that demonstrated that rats in isolation were far more likely to become addicts than rats who lived in community. These interesting findings highlight the importance of connection in combating addiction … but we are not rats. We are human beings capable of self-reflection. And we are not at war with addiction. We are at war with our deepest sense of self. It is our sense of self that needs liberating to embrace our own company. Addiction is not what we are fighting. Rather, we are running from ourselves, often seeking refuge through the eyes of companions or community. It is perhaps only when we can authentically witness our selves, free from judgment and projections, that we find the freedom we are seeking. Herein rests a key to transcending addictions: being alone and connecting to self. Then we can genuinely connect to others. For me, being alone was Be-in-gal-one. At first I thought gal was referring to my gender. But in fact gal was in reference to an old French word, gale, meaning “merriment.” Being alone meant being all one with merriment— Joy—undivided with the essence of ourselves as love in joy.
One the greatest ways to move beyond the distractions of our addictions is to take a trip anywhere with yourself. This trip can be a vacation away from your daily responsibilities for a weekend or a week at a time—or it can be for an hour a day. This trip can be lunch or dinner in a restaurant solo or a walk in the woods. Whatever you would normally do with another, just do it with yourself. At first you may meet resistance, either your own excuses or excuses offered by those around you. As long as you are avoiding yourself through addictions to distractions, there will always be reasons why you can’t spend time with yourself. Here is an opportunity to move beyond the placeholder of the excuses into the graceholder of navigating solo. The first time I traveled by myself, my family and friends were opposed to the idea. They threw out many reasons why they thought I should not go. It would have been easy to acquiesce to their excuses, but the reasons why were all a lie. Traveling with myself was an opportunity to get really clear on who I was, to get comfortable in my own skin and to recognize and appreciate my own company. If I had known how wonderful solo time (and solo travel) would be in terms of connection to my heart, mind, and body, I would have done it years ago. Alone time is devoid of compromise, comparison, and competition. Completion is easy to recognize when we embrace being alone. Being alone is hard for many people. Often we will reason this is because of our personality type. We “like” to be around people, as we are extroverts, we reason. Or “being with others is community.” Perhaps this is true, and perhaps our personality types and beliefs around community are simply schemas we have developed to justify avoiding being alone. While connection to others may support freedom from addiction, it is connection to our True Authentic Self that supports the recognition of our inherent completion. Commit to a vacation from company. Travel solo in whatever way you can. It can be a few minutes each day, an hour, or a week. However you travel, know that you have the perfect companion—you. Journey into self-love and take a holiday as a whole day for the joy of being truly you … no matter how long that takes.
Addictions to Distractions
We are not broken, and neither are our choices. In many instances, we may make choices out of integrity with our inherent wholeness to find a return to wholeness. We may use addictions as distractions. We may choose addictions as a playground for making distinctions, to gain awareness about what we do not want, who we are not, and how we do not really want to behave. We can then leverage the playground as a springboard into clarity, to choose a different option, always available through heart–mind synthesis.
Shame Primes Addiction
Regardless of what your fix may be, almost all addictive behaviors carry components of shame. In fact, shame primes addiction. A key to moving beyond any addictive pattern is to release all shame associated with the pattern. Addiction and shame often accompany each other, and it can be hard to decipher which comes first. We may feel shame and then reach for the addictive placeholder to feel better. Or we may feel ashamed of our addictive placeholder and therefore we reach for the placeholder again to mitigate the shame. Shame is defined as a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong. Unfortunately, shame will trigger all emotions related to lack of self-worth and will leave us feeling not good enough, not worthy, and, most of all, not lovable. Shame will actually trigger addictive behaviors as a strategy to avoid feeling self-recrimination. In some sense, we may be addicted to shame itself. Please know there is nothing that anyone can ever do, nothing that you can do, that can stop you from being love. We can’t be anything else. Love is what we are. Heart-centered awareness and playing with placeholders can release the shame that binds us. Heart-centered awareness can open us to the self-love that eternally bonds us and offer freedom from addictions.
Ask for Help
Ask for help. Addictions create a sense of isolation and loneliness, which is different than connecting to self when alone as all-one. Seek support from others until you are comfortable solo. Connection with others who are supportive and nonjudgmental is an important component in the movement toward freedom. The information provided in this article can help transform addictive patterns. However, what is being shared also complements specialized formal programs dedicated to addiction recovery. This article is not intended to replace professional consultation or treatment, when warranted. You are free to choose and are encouraged to ask for local help to support you in gaining freedom from the shackles of addiction. This article is excerpted and adapted from the recently published best-selling book “The Integrity Effect” by Melissa Joy Jonsson.
this association between rewarding experiences and dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens initially caused many neuroscientists to believe the main role of the nucleus accumbens was in mediating reward. Thus, it is often implicated in addiction and the processes that lead to addiction.
the Caudate is also part of the Reward System. It lies in the middle of your head and looks a bit like a medium-sized shrimp—two shrimp, actually, as each hemisphere of the brain has its own Caudate. The caudate and other regions of the striatum have connections to the cerebral cortex, the top, multi-folded layer of the brain with which we do our thinking. It has connections, too, with memory areas and with the ventral-tegmental area VTA. Indeed, the Caudate integrates data from many brain regions. No part of the brain ever works alone, and love is no exception [emphasis added].
all addictions are placeholders in awareness that represent an attempt to find True Authentic Self and simultaneously avoid it. The placeholder that the addiction pattern represents serves as a habituated strategy to avoid recognizing self as an infinitely whole, perfect, and limitless being that is having an experience of limitation.