As I was doing my long run last weekend, I chose a hilly route because I was in the midst of training for a half marathon with a very hilly course. When I got to the top of a long hill in my town that I have a choice name for, I felt like a rock star. Mostly because when I turned around the wind was at my back and I was now running at a decline. My pace was good, and low and behold “the runner’s high” kicks in. Ahhh, this is why I run, for the rush of endorphins and feel-good chemicals that flood my brain. However, somewhere between the eighth and ninth mile of my run, I became tired, hungry and a little irritable, ready to go home. I remember thinking “what goes up must come down”. Why do I do it? I do it because the feelings I get when I am on my “high” far outweigh the fatigue, the pain, the injuries and any negative thing associated with running. When I am not doing it, I miss it and crave it. I am irritable. I don’t always get the runner’s high, but I go back for more, seeking that feeling.
The Addicted Brain
I use this metaphorically to explain more about the addicted brain. I see several people in my private practice struggling with addiction of all sorts, whether it’s food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, porn or shopping, we all have our own vice. Addiction has a specific definition: you are unable to stop when you want to, despite being aware of the adverse consequences. It permeates your life; you spend more time trying to satisfying your craving (Dr. Nora Volkow, Director, NIDA). Initially, a person may start taking a drug or drinking hoping to change their mood or emotional state, however they may not be able to stop after a while because their brains become rewired by the substance use. This “feel good” (the brain’s dopamine) response is registered in a certain part of the brain and the process becomes the “brain reward pathway”. With addiction, the person becomes conditioned to the drug-induced pleasure. Repeated use impacts the brain by reducing available dopamine and other brain chemicals and withdrawal occurs when drugs have depleted these brain chemicals. This is what I refer to as “filling the black hole”, or trying to find that feeling of euphoria, calmness or numbness that the substance provides. The addiction is not really to the sex, shopping, eating or substances themselves, but rather to the dopamine and endorphin rewards. Recovery will always be an uphill battle and relapses are part of that battle, but people are doing it every day. Being intentional and knowing our triggers and weaknesses take work and we must start over daily. Online addiction treatment can be your biggest ally in this journey. With today’s rat race, not everyone can find the time for that face-to-face counseling. Online recovery programs are there at your convenience, when you need it most. “What matters is not the features of our character of the drives and instincts per se, but rather the stand we take toward them. And the capacity to take such a stand is what makes us human beings” (Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning).