The Brain Chemistry Of Bad Behaviors
There is a feel-good pattern you have created in your brain. We all do it; how else would we survive our often arduous circumstances? The primitive parts of the brain retain neurons that tell us how to think, feel and store memory. These signals, or neurotransmitters, cause heightened sensations in the body, and store the powerful memories that, of course, we want more of!
Neuroplasticity is an emerging theory in the field of neuroscience. So whether your bad behavior is shopping, eating, codependency or serial infidelity, there is a chemical reaction occurring producing what makes you feel ok. You get hooked on this feeling and repeat the behavior, which reinforces the neurological pathway. As these synaptic networks strengthen, the behaviors become entrenched. Drug and alcohol addiction are most obviously rooted in this very neurobiology.
Why bad behaviors? If its adrenaline based, norepinephrine is activated. This is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Something challenging, involving risk, is often a trigger: extracurricular sex, gambling, shoplifting, and cocaine are typical examples. There is a rush quality to these behaviors. The prefrontal brain functions of judgement and impulse control are significantly impaired, paving the way for the repeat of the thrill-seeking behvior.
Dopamine is another chemical that floods the brain, attuning the system to pleasurable stimuli. Positive emotions and heightened arousal permeates the body during this mind state. New relationships soar as dopamine levels climb. Think about the mind-state of falling in love...
Serotonin, which provides comfort and ensures homeostasis, actually decreases when one is engaged in risky behaviors. This leaves behind an unsettling feeling which is why we cannot sleep or feel somewhat obsessed during this time. Sound familiar? Low serotonin levels are at the root of many psychological and physical problems. Hence the field of psychopharmacology to alter these levels so easily. Many of our antidepressant categories are based on adjusting the levels of serotonin. Anxiety disorders are closely correlated with seratonin fluctuation.
Point of all this is to understand that addictive behaviors are real physiological conditions, not bizarre psychological weaknesses. What neurobiology is now contributing to addiction treatment is a better understanding of the reward-pathway stimulation; how and when to interrupt the cycle, and a de-stigmatization of shame.
How to begin to interrupt the cycle and regain control:
Know its not the vice you are so needing; it is the feel-good effects. Distinguishing here is critical. Giving power to the vice is diminishing the power within to stop the compulsive behavior. So its not the new shoes, or the next line of cocaine, or the next text message you must send...rather a feeling, with an underlying new belief, that is so vital to our existence. Yes, here’s where psychodynamic therapy comes in.
Time to break out of denial. If it is imperative to obtain this state of mind, what is going on that does not feel so good? Where in your life are you short-changing yourself? In other words, if you need so badly to feel good, you probably have not been feeling ok for awhile and are compensating...
What can you bring into your life that makes you feel good in a more authentic way? When we give something up, there is a void. A good time to connect to healthier, more sustaining ways to feel good. Know that these new things may not have the rush quality of the former. Retraining the brain thru Mindfulness practices will disrupt the cycle and diminish the addictive draw. Through Mindfulness we learn experientially about non-attachment, acceptance, and gratitude for what is, so we can stop chasing what is not.
Disrupting the pattern takes work. Understanding the process is the first step.