A few months ago I was in a rut. Every Sunday, Iâd read (or doze) the morning away, get up at lunchtime, walk to Dun Laoghaire market, eat Lebanese falafel, buy artichokes, cheese, raw chocolate, fruit and veg, browse the bookshops, buy dinner, cook it, watch TV and go to bed. A nice leisurely Sunday? No. It was mind numbing. So why did I do it? Because it had become an essential comfort.
My friend Sasha* canât live without Cadburyâs Tiffin. But she considers the English version so inferior to the Irish that she has a network of friends and rellies furnishing her with âsuppliesâ from the Emerald Isle. Life in the Pennines is not worth living without her choccie.
I ask myself: are we addicted?
The word addiction is inextricably linked to drugs and alcohol, so it may seem facile to call âharmlessâ habits addictions. But I think they are. And I donât think theyâre harmless. Why? Because they rob us of our free will: the ability to choose to think, do, or eat (!) something different.
There are ways of dealing with addictions, from organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to Patrick Holfordâs new book, How To Quit Without Feeling S**t. The latter adopts a nutritional approach to balancing blood sugar and body chemistry, thereby rendering the body-mind less vulnerable to drugs, alcohol and everyday addictions like caffeine. But what Iâm interested in here is how we become addicted to things in the first place â not just external substances but emotions and patterns of behaviour â and why such habits are so resistant that it can be hard to adopt a healing approach at all.
The body-mind can become addicted both to external chemicals (drugs, foodstuffs, chocolate, etc.) and to elements of its own internal pharmacy (emotions). Taking the opiate drug heroin to illustrate how addictions work, after itâs injected, heroin docks with the opiate receptors of a cell. Opiate receptors are biologically designed to receive endorphins. Endorphins are neuropeptides manufactured by the hypothalamus in the brain. They are internal painkillers. If, instead of receiving endorphins, our cells receive heroin, they quickly become addicted to heroin. According to neuroscientist Candace Pert, PhD, who discovered the opiate receptor in the 1980s, the more heroin a user takes, the more his ability to make internal endorphins, his own inner heroin, declines, because his body has become dependent on an external source. His opiate receptors become sub-sensitive and decrease in number, while the drug blocks the growth of new brain cells. According to Pert, any drug humans are capable of becoming addicted to has an internal counterpart (e.g. heroin/endorphin). Thatâs why our body recognises, responds and becomes addicted to such drugs. External drugs use the internal receptors meant for our inner pharmacy.
The fascinating thing, though, is this: the same scenario can be played out with emotions. Emotions produce peptides, or âthe molecules of emotionâ. These dock with cellular receptors, as they are meant to. But if a particular emotion is emphasised repeatedly, e.g. anger, the same thing happens as occurs with repeated heroin use. The cellsâ receptors begin to expect the âangerâ peptide and hey presto! Your body becomes addicted to that emotion. You may not consciously pick a fight on Saturday night but your cells are itching for it and wonât rest until youâve given them a shot of rage.
Emotions and memories of emotional experiences are encoded in neural networks, or neuronets. Neuronets are interconnected and it is their interconnection that builds up complex ideas, memories and emotions. They are connected to the hypothalamus. If we fire up the correct neuronets, the inner chemicals start to flow.
As with heroin, if a given receptor for a given molecule of emotion is bombarded, it will become sub-sensitive and its numbers will decline. Just as a heroin addict has to take larger and larger doses to achieve the original high, the power hungry politician has to run for higher and higher office to get his emotional fix. His cells are being starved of the emotional range they need but feel satiated in an addictive way the more power his personality creates. He may not articulate what he feels but will, notwithstanding, go all out to satisfy that nebulous craving for power his cellular friends (cell mates?) demand.
Addiction to emotion can produce the following effects and more: destructive emotional states; doing the same thing over and over; inability to change; feeling unable to create anything new; cravings for certain emotional responses; saying youâll never, ever do something again, then doing it again two hours laterâ¦ Sound familiar? Emotional addiction may also explain why some people get stuck in a rut, or must have coffee after dinner, or repeat the same abusive relationship ad nauseam while never consciously creating it.
Addictions can be hard to break. Some need professional help. Others need nutritional and lifestyle support. But behind it all is a need for awareness. By acknowledging an addiction and consciously choosing to do something else, the pattern can start to fracture. Even something as simple as going to Wicklow on Sunday instead of hanging around Dun Laoghaire, or consciously walking away from a fight, can be a start. The high afforded by new experience touches the pleasure centre of the brain, which is how it should be. Habit merely tries to relive old pleasures. Over time, if cells are not fed their fix, they start to relinquish the receptor cells for addictive emotions. And when they reproduce, they do so without the receptor sites responsible for those emotional states and the chemical addiction is finally broken. New, harmonious cells lead eventually to a new, more joyful body.
According to Dr Pert, there is evidence to suggest that when people or animals are addicted to a drug, the growth of new brain cells is blocked. When the drug is discontinued, however, new brain cells start to grow. âOne can completely recover,â she says, âand one can make up her mind and create a new vision for herself, a new brain.â Thereâs hope in that for all forms of addiction, great and small.
Alcoholics Anonymous in Ireland: http://www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie
Narcotics Anonymous Ireland: http://www.na-ireland.org
Patrick Holfordâs web site: http://www.patrickholford.com
Patrick Holford, How To Quit Without Feeling S**t, (London, 2008) is widely available in bookshops.
* Name and identifying details have been changed to protect the guilty.