Addiction Resides in the Limbic System
Addiction resides in the limbic system, a subconscious part of the brain involved with memory, emotion and reward. The reward centre is what ensures we survive. It is primitive and automatic. Repeat: Primitive and Automatic. It is a system of chemical and nerve pathways that work tirelessly to keep us safe. They are sometimes a little behind the times. We have evolved very quickly over the past few centuries, so the primitive brain is trying to catch up.
If you eat something delicious, for example, the chemicals in your brain register it as something that is safe and nutritious to eat. This increases the likelihood that you will eat the same thing again. Similarly, in addiction, the brain reprioritizes the drug, subconsciously telling you that taking it is necessary for survival. Each time you take the drug, the chemicals distort the brain’s communication system. This changes the way nerve cells normally send, receive and process information.
Over time, your drug use activates nerve cells to send abnormal messages. The over-stimulation of this reward system makes it harder and harder to quit, because your brain is telling you to repeat the rewarding behavior over and over. This becomes a vicious cycle that is difficult to break, especially on your own. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now that you understand what it is, you can treat it, with help.
Alcohol is deadly!
Alcohol is by far the biggest killer in Australia, trumping all the drugs of addiction. Note the number of persons per 100 000 on the left side of the graph. It is twice the number of the previous graph, which only went up to three per 100 000. Alcohol can play a substantial role in a person’s death, yet not be recognized as the underlying cause of death.
In such cases, the alcohol use would be referred to as an “associated cause of death”. People were twice as likely to have alcohol certified as a contributory factor to their death than have their death certified as alcohol-induced (ABS 2018). This means that these numbers are likely to be much higher than depicted in statistics and graphs such as the ones shown here. Also, guys, the rate of alcohol-induced deaths for males has been on average 3.5 times higher than that of females over the past two decades.
Alcohol contributes to over 3 000 000 deaths annually globally each year, as well as to the disabilities and poor health of millions of people. It is estimated that up to 88000 people in the USA alone died of alcohol-related causes in recent years (AIHW; ABS, 2018).
Drugs kill quickly
If you think that people die from drugs after a long and lustrous career of using, the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing (AIHW: 2018) statistics paint a different picture. If you use drugs, you could be one of the 80% (yes, 80%!!!) of drug users who die accidently. Sadly, some people don’t die; they survive an accidental drug mishap but end up in vegetative states in care homes for the rest of their lives.
One model used to understand addiction was put forward by Dr Elvin Jellinek. He tried to understand addiction through his patients’ symptoms. He interviewed thousands of sober alcoholics and asked them to describe how their drinking had progressed from the first drink until they got sober.
The Jellinek Curve is made up of two curving halves. The left half curves downward and represents a person’s decline from substance abuse to addiction. The right half curves upward and represents a person’s recovery from addiction.
Using the Jellinek criteria, do an honest self-screening now. How many of the following symptoms do you have? Tick each one you experience or have experienced:
- Occasional relief using.
- Increase in your drug tolerance.
- Surreptitious using.
- Onset of constant relief when using.
- Feelings of guilt.
- Onset of memory blackouts.
- Urgency of first drug.
- Increasing dependence on your drug.
- Inability to discuss your problem.
- Increased memory blackouts.
You are beginning to have a problem…
As the curve continues to drop, your symptoms get worse…
Once again, do an honest self-screening of how many of the following symptoms you have experienced:
- Physical deterioration.
- Decrease in tolerance to your drug.
- Tremors and early-morning drug use.
- Lengthy intoxications.
- Using with chronic users.
- Moral deterioration.
- Inability to initiate action.
- Indefinable fears.
- Impaired thinking.
- Vague spiritual desires.
- Obsession with your drug use.
You’re now sliding down to bottom… How about…
- Admission of complete defeat?
Fortunately, if your sense of hopelessness pushes you to seek help, opportunities for recovery are plentiful.