Empathy Brain

Addiction is one of the most poorly understood, heavily pathologized experiences of distress. Especially in the western world, we tend to think of addicts as people with poor impulse control, people who just "can't get it together," people who are "irresponsible," careless people who hurt themselves and others with no care for the impact.

Not only does the false narrative above individualize distress (that is, it doesn't take into account the systemic injustice, poverty, racism, and other "isms" that lead to manifestations of emotional distress), but this narrative leaves no room for hope, for change, for evolution.

In reality, humans are vastly beautiful and complex beings whose needs for connection and warmth and belonging are vastly underserved by the isolated, colonized culture we've built. In reality, we reach for substances as a way of managing trauma, because drugs have direct correlations to our own brain chemistry that can help us sooth the imbalances that come as a result of adverse childhood experiences.

And in reality, our brains can permanently rectify and heal those imbalances, no matter how old we are, or what adverse experiences we've endured; we CAN learn other strategies and bid goodbye to choiceless behaviors and substance use... with gentleness and resonance.

Wait - so addiction actually makes sense?

Yes! We attempt to meet our needs for self-regulation with substances, behaviors, anything we can grab that might bring a little bit of peace, make it just a little easier to live inside our lacerating brains and aching, lonely bodies. When those behaviors or substances become choiceless, and when we use them again and again, despite the fact that they are causing harm, this is when we might describe our behavior as compulsive or addictive.

I've come to think of addiction as the natural result of not having developed a warm, intact resonating self-witness.

When we have not developed a solid and stable part of ourselves that can turn toward our distressed parts with warmth the way a loving parent would, we turn to substances and behaviors that help to sooth us, to make it easier to exist.

What causes addiction?

We know addiction is VERY heavily correlated with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). For instance, a male child with a 6 ACEs score is 4,600% more likely to become an IV drug user later in life. The more we've experienced trauma (which changes the chemical neurotransmitter balance in the brain), the more our brains will try to compensate for the experience by using external substances and behaviors.

And so it is not the drugs that are addictive. Addiction occurs in the brain that is attempting to find a solution for a brain imbalance that has been caused by trauma.

Now, many of us think of ACEs as the "capital T" trauma experiences like sexual, physical and psychological abuse, a parent who has been incarcerated, or physical neglect that comes from not having enough food or shelter. However, ACEs also include relational neglect.

Relational neglect refers to experiences in childhood where our social experience is one of being ignored. When we are not called by our names, when our caregivers do not make regular and warm eye-contact with us, and when we are "invisible" and not paid attention to, our brains experience a kind of starvation (literally - children who've experienced neglect have brains that are lighter in weight) as a result of not having received relational nourishment. Similarly, we can see the impact on the hearts of people who have experienced chronic loneliness, impacts that are more severe than a lifetime of cigarette smoking.

Our brains are very good at finding work-arounds when we are not able to access the energy and connection we need in life as a result of relational, as well as other traumas. We often find these work-arounds in substances and choiceless behaviors.

So: How Do We Work With Addiction?

The imbalances that are caused by trauma are NOT permanent. Our brains are infinitely neuroplastic and can change and heal at any age. The most efficacious techniques I have found are based in the neuroscience that teaches us how to identify the root of our distress patterns, and intervene with warmth and resonance in order to create brain change.

In my upcoming May webinar, we'll be working with addiction specifically, including exploring the way the human brain works in relationship to substances. Every external substance/drug has a counter-point in the human brain (for example, benzodiazepines are a direct remedy for the FEAR circuit, opioids are remedies for an activated PANIC/GRIEF circuit).

When we understand this, we can then move into deep self compassion and understanding of where the longing for the substance comes from, and how we might meet that need in a different way.