Therapist Blog

Negative Feelings, Not the Urge to Get High, May Drive Addiction

Scientific studies have shown that chronic use of a drug such as cocaine results in release of large amounts of the feel good chemical dopamine in the reward pathway in the brain producing intense pleasure, a high, that is chemically imprinted in the brain and reinforced over time, driving the individual to chase the high repeatedly. It has been known, anecdotally (meaning based on experience with addicts and not scientific studies) in the addiction field for some time that an individual with advanced addiction no longer uses his/her drug to get high but merely uses just to not get sick, that is, to avoid withdrawal. Recent research, reported in ScienceDaily of June 12, 2013, has demonstrated that drug induced changes in “... an emotion-related brain region called the central amygdala -- whose activity promotes feelings of malaise and unhappiness – play ... a major role in sustaining cocaine addiction.” The researchers in experiments with rats, found signs that cocaine-induced changes in this brain system contribute to anxiety-like behavior and other unpleasant symptoms of drug withdrawal -- symptoms that typically drive an addict to keep using. The report continues: “While changes in these pleasure-seeking brain networks may dominate the early period of drug use, scientists have been finding evidence of changes in the "negative" motivational circuitry as well -- changes that move a person to take a drug not for its euphoric effects but for its (temporary) alleviation of the anxiety-ridden dysphoria of drug withdrawal.”

So science is catching up with what has been common knowledge in addiction-recovery circles, namely, that an alcoholic or drug addict continues to use just to try to feel “normal”, that is, not sick or in withdrawal. As always, comments are invited. Jan Edward Williams