The biology of emotions in addictions and treatment
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05-29-15 Category: Addiction Treatment


Emotions are very real and very important. Our emotions guide the decisions that shape our lives. Emotions are the dynamic result of many interacting factors, such as chemical, neurological, nutritional, environmental, genetic, electrical and spiritual factors.

Emotional reactions are regulated by automatic biological responses to situations and conditions. Neurotransmitters (NTs) are chemicals released by the body that send signals to the brain and moderate our state of mind. NTs tell us when to be afraid and when to be happy.

Neurotransmitters stimulate fear or happiness

Fear NTs, like adrenaline, can save lives by initiating the fight-or-flight response to danger. Adrenaline signals the brain to act before cognitive processes have a chance to figure out what is happening. For example, a mother might scream when her child jumps out of hiding to startle her. Stage fright is another example.

Other NTs cause happy emotions by signaling opiate receptors, which are the reward centers in the brain. Major happy NTs include dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin. One example is the runner’s high one gets during vigorous exercise.

Healthy activities that stimulate happiness

NTs are also released during healthy activities, such as achievement, meditation, orgasm, laughter and while falling in love. Components of certain foods also stimulate endorphins, such as chocolate, ginseng and hot peppers. Simple acts of kindness or a gratitude list, among numerous other activities, can stimulate the body to produce NTs. Engaging in healthy activities that stimulate NT production not only produces happiness, but also protects against the desire to produce NTs artificially or in unhealthy ways.

Unhealthy activities that stimulate happiness

Drug and alcohol abuse, gambling and criminal activity also stimulate the reward centers in the brain. Without a healthy routine, people tend to choose activities that offer the fastest NT release for the least amount of effort. For example, having a glass of wine might seem easier than going jogging. Over time, bad habits can form which are reinforced by brain changes.

Abused drugs, such as prescription painkillers and heroin, also act on the brain’s opiate receptors and produce an artificial sense of happiness. These drugs interfere with the body’s ability to produce its own NTs, leading to drug-induced depression. Drug abusers do have a high rate of underlying depression that seems to contribute to the maintenance of their addiction.

Alcohol stimulates the production of NTs, resulting in immediate gratification to the opiate receptors. Alcohol also inhibits the body from producing its own NTs and is also a central nervous system depressant, causing widespread depression among persons with alcohol use disorders.

Gambling is a behavioral addiction which is influenced by biological, psychological and social factors. An interesting study was presented last year at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference in Berlin, in which brain scans of compulsive gamblers were compared to healthy volunteers after receiving amphetamine tablets. Gamblers’ brains responded differently and they reported less euphoria than healthy subjects’ brains. The investigators concluded that gamblers had to work harder to stimulate their brain reward centers and, therefore, felt compelled to gamble even more.

Gang membership is similar to addiction in many ways and often equally difficult to break. Receiving positive reinforcement from other gang members helps promote a sense of belonging. These positive emotions are caused by the same brain reward NTs and receptors. Gang membership provides a sense of belonging. Associated criminal activity provides excitement and positive reinforcement. Again, any behavior patterns that seek the fastest and easiest NT release can quickly become unhealthy habits and addictions.

Addiction is almost impossible to change without help. It is a downward spiral of biological and psychosocial decompensation that usually results in spiritual bankruptcy. Professional treatment programs along with community support groups allow individuals to break the spiral and form healthy habits. Normal sleep patterns and a nutritious diet need to be re-established. Exercise is critical to stimulate NT production, improve depressive symptoms and prevent relapse.

Exercise helps combat addiction

Daily exercise has been proven effective in the treatment of depression, anxiety, psychosis and mood disorders in hundreds of scientific studies. A review of the literature suggests exercise also decreases craving and drinking behavior in those with substance use disorders. Many people who have recovered from drug and alcohol addiction include exercise as part of their daily recovery program.

Exercise also increases oxygen delivery to the brain, liver and heart and promotes healing of damaged organs caused by drug and alcohol abuse. Once these substances are removed from the system, the brain will begin to heal itself and eventually produce NTs normally again. New treatments, such as neurofeedback, can help expedite this process.

Using biology as a defense against addiction

In summary, emotions are simply the result of a brain-body-spirit feedback system and are marked by NT activation. By keeping NT activation regulated through healthy daily activities, emotional well-being can be maximized. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, social activities and other pleasures are also necessary.

Avoiding alcohol, drugs and mind-altering substances is necessary to prevent ongoing neurological damage. Gambling and other self-destructive behaviors only serve to create or prolong the imbalance. The trouble starts when unhealthy habits become lifestyles and emotions take control.

Emotional imbalance is a common side-effect of  lifestyle imbalance. Sometimes simple changes can be make a big difference. Others may require complete lifestyle changes to feel better. Either way, any healthy change makes a positive difference.

Sovereign Health of California specializes in brain wellness and mental health treatment for adolescents and adults. Based on the biology of emotions, brain re-training approaches are offered, such as neurotransmitter-assisted intravenous therapy, neurofeedback and cognitive-behavioral therapy. For more information, call (866) 819-0427.

By Dana Connolly, Ph.D., Sovereign Health Group writer

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