Dr. Raj … on Crossing the Line: When Does Drinking Become An Addiction??
The line between drinking that you enjoy and drinking that takes over your life isn’t always that easy to pin down … but a sure sign that this has happened is how you feel when you aren’t drinking.
What do I mean by that? Addiction literally sucks the joy out of your life. Scientists who’ve studied what happens when the brain gets accustomed to steady drinking have identified the biological basis for addiction, which actually changes the reward circuitry in your brain. Dopamine is the chemical (neurotransmitter) that the brain releases when we experience pleasure; the more dopamine that pours into the brain, the greater our feeling of pleasure. For example, dopamine is released when you eat or have sex. When we use alcohol (or drugs) to stimulate the release of dopamine – again and again, more and more – all that “pleasure” literally floods the brain’s pleasure-reward pathways. The brain rewires itself to accommodate the altered flow and, ironically, the net result of this ends up being that the brain is less sensitive to feeling pleasure.
It works like this: You have a drink or use a drug and you feel good – the drug/alcohol that so relaxes you has triggered the release of dopamine. When this happens continually, your brain reacts to the excess of dopamine and cuts back on how much it produces naturally and also decreases the number of dopamine receptors your brain has. The fewer receptors for your dopamine, the less pleasure you are able to feel when you aren’t drinking or using drugs. You now become accustomed to getting your dopamine from wine, beer or whatever else is your “drug of choice” – and when you try to go without you don’t feel good. Before addiction, going to a movie or taking a walk on the beach felt great but now those activities don’t provide enough pleasure to be worth the effort it takes to get up and out of the house. You may try to cut back (perhaps because someone who cares for you has pointed out that it is becoming a problem) but it makes you feel lousy. Your brain is no longer as sensitive to this feel-good chemical on its own.
This decreased ability to feel pleasure (and, possibly, the symptoms of physical withdrawal) make it very difficult to conquer a substance abuse problem on your own. The brain is no longer working properly. It loses its ability to “just say no” when triggered by people, places or things that are associated with drugging/drinking.
All this explains why the biological odds work against sobriety. If you are trying to beat an addiction, it’s so important to have social and spiritual supports – and sometimes, medications too – which will play a strong role in abstinence and recovery. It’s not easy to do and the results take a while – specifically three months – to kick in. If you’re able to stay abstinent and completely avoid drugs/alcohol for 90 days, your brain’s chemistry will have an opportunity to begin to heal and reverse the damaged circuitry so that you can, once again, begin to feel pleasure in life.
Today’s Exercise: A Path to Change – Completing a Genograme
If parents are alcoholic, some of their children may be born with a propensity for alcoholism – and if addiction runs in your family, you have a higher chance of becoming dependent. Understanding your genetic history can be an important step in reversing an addiction to alcohol or other substances. Self-reflection and self-awareness are the basis for change. One tool for obtaining a brief history of yourself is to spend time thinking about the biological and psychological traits that are unique to you: your family tree. This is called a genogram.
I encourage you to consider the following questions and to write down your memories, thoughts and ideas in your journal.
1. What do you know about the life experiences of your parents, grandparents and other caregivers? Write down brief memories, adjectives or facts about each, covering such topics as illnesses, abuse, addictions, mental illness, immigration, occupation, habits, hobbies, wars survived or fought in, marriages, divorces, death, financial status, political affiliations and character traits. What stands out for you?
2. How do you think your grandparents’ pasts may have impacted your life?
3. How do you think your parents’ past may have impacted your life?
4. Which of the influences listed were positive? Which were negative?