Why Willpower Doesn’t Work, and Why More Meaning Does
Family members and friends who are not addicts themselves often have no comprehension of how compelled an addict feels to continue their obsessive drug seeking behavior. I work with a lot of families of addicts who are severely confused about why the addict can’t just use willpower to stop drinking or taking drugs. They can stop easily, why can’t the addict?
Once a family understands from a biochemical standpoint why their loved one is choosing drugs over their family and friends, they begin to have greater compassion for the hell their loved one is trapped in. This takes a lot of the blame out of the family relationship so that the focus can shift to treatment.
We also work with therapists in the addiction field and we have found that once they understand the neurobiology of the Meaning Network and dopamine’s role in it, they start to shift their perspective. They begin to see that just getting the addict off of drugs and into AA or NA, while a good start, may not be enough. They must then begin to focus more heavily on helping the recovering addict find other things in their lives that can give them meaning to stimulate their dopamine circuits other than drugs and drink.
As an example, I am supporting a 26-year-old alcoholic with his new business startup. This young man who is in AA has only been sober for 6 months after 10 years of wild heavy drinking. He has some great stories, like almost shooting his nuts off while high. Today he said to me “JW this is the first time in my life that I had something more meaningful to me than alcohol.
I can’t believe how since I started this new business venture, my cravings have slowly disappeared. I feel so blessed to understand that I might have had a problem with finding meaning in my life… not alcohol!”
Now, I am not saying that when an addict finds more meaning in their life it will be a cure-all. But we have found that in conjunction with AA and similar programs that when addicts focus on finding greater meaning in their lives their progress is much more steady and successful. Our hope is the research into the Meaning Network-dopamine-addiction connection will support traditional treatment centers to add a “finding meaning” component to their sobriety programs.
Why It’s So Hard To Kick An Addiction
One of the reasons that all addicts have such a difficult time kicking their habits is because excessive drug and alcohol use can eliminate dopamine receptors. When the brain is bombarded for long periods by too much dopamine caused by drug addiction, the result is that dopamine receptors reduce their number in the process called “down regulation.”
Synapse Decrease in Addict’s Brain
Addicts then need to take more of their drug of choice to stimulate fewer dopamine receptor sites. When addicts stop using drugs and alcohol they feel depressed and a deep lack of meaning in their lives. This is because they have less dopamine receptors and no drug to overstimulate the ones that are left. It can take up to a year or longer of abstinence for the dopamine system of a hard-core addict or alcoholic to normalize itself. Relapse is such a prevalent problem in addiction treatment because the addict with fewer dopamine receptors sees his or her drug of choice as the only way out of feelings of depression, anxiety, and meaninglessness.
An interesting phenomenon about reward circuits and addiction is their capacity to prompt us to repeat drug use even if we eventually get no pleasure from taking them. Addiction specialists point out that, in the state of addiction called maintenance, addicts’ drug use has so damaged receptors in the areas of the brain that process pleasurable feelings that these individuals get very little or no pleasure from getting a hit of their drug. Yet the brain circuits that compel them to anticipate and seek out their drug of choice are still intact and demanding stimulation. The end result is that these poor addicts are forced to use drugs over and over again without the immediate hit of pleasure that hooked them in the first place. This is the hell of addiction.
Understanding the function of dopamine in the process of meaning making lets us see that drugs are not a source of evil unleashed on a gullible society, but more simply something that people who suffer from a genetic predisposition or negative and unhealthy life circumstances use to stimulate the Meaning Networks. New research shows one reason 12-step groups work so well in helping people get off drugs and alcohol is because cooperative group behaviors like AA and NA provide stimulate the brain’s dopamine circuits. Therefore, a 12-step group meeting supplies the boost of dopamine the addict had previously gotten from his drug of choice, a wonderful substitution.
It is our hope that this above addiction research and its connection with dopamine and the Meaning Network will give you greater insights into how to help yourself and others gain greater meaning and fulfillment in life.