Motivation, Kindness, Substances, and the Human Brain

TruthTalks News   •   December 13, 2016

We are motivated to do things that feel good.  Things that pump out feeling-good brain chemicals called dopamine. For example, we are motivated to go camping at the beach if dopamine flowed the last time we went or, if you’ve never been, perhaps when you looked at pictures of a beauti­ful beach camping spot, we feel good and excited. As we look forward to the trip, we summon the energy and drive it takes to pack up backpacks, organize maps, plan meals, and forgo our comfy bed for a week. When we’re at our camping spot, we take in the sounds, smells, and adventure of the experience and dopamine flows and we feel good. The decision to do all the work and heavy lifting associated with a camping trip is motivated by the anticipation and actual reward of smelling pine needles, hearing babbling brooks, and eating s’mores.  Anticipation and actual Reward.

Motivation works the same way with the decision to use a substance. Substance use increases dopamine in the brain (or the substance itself replicates dopamine.)  If someone is struggling with depression and uses cocaine and feels more alert, engaged, and less tired, he may be motivated to use cocaine again to “feel better.”  Why not? Even though going on a camping trip would also make the person feel better, camping is a lot more work.

According to what we’ll call the zero-to-sixty rule, the quicker a substance (or experience) affects the brain, the more powerfully the brain is motivated to use it. An, unfortunately, our experiences are relative —  if the brain’s reward system has learned to release dopamine in response to a fast acting drug, that same brain might not get excited by nature, the smell of a campfire, s’mores, and so on even if the person loves those experiences. In other words, the benefits of camping will pale in comparison to those of using the drug. “For someone using substances, cocaine is rocket fuel, while camping is a can of Sterno.”

The above is excerpted from Beyond Addiction, How Science and Kindness Help People Change. When I read this book, (devoured it as well as the 20 minute guide workbook,) I learned something striking and new.  While we are, in truth, powerless over people’s thoughts and actions, being supportive and kind can actually affect their brains in terms of dopamine production, much like drugs do.  In acknowledging the truth and logic of this new kind of thinking, I found hope.  And it spoke to a place inside of me that I knew existed all along.

Individuals with substance use disorder cannot kick drugs in a vacuum. These people need their family’s love, support, engagement, and trust. Conversation, compassion, humor, and an endless flow of love speak volumes and I think when the adult child feels seen and heard, it’s my (unscientific) opinion that dopamine shoots into their brains and they feel good.

Over time, trust in the process of positive conversation (See Blog Post on Motivational Interviewing) and calm inquiry does develop and maybe, just maybe, the substance abuser will begin to feel better (instead of worse) around family.  Most everyone wants and needs the love of their family.

“The brain and the world in which it operates are inextricably intertwined; we literally take in sub­stances, people, and other stimuli, and they affect the very structure and functioning of our brains. Our brains in turn affect our behavior toward substances, people, and other stimuli in the world. Understanding the interactive nature of motivation, you can see the value in staying engaged. Your loved one is affecting his brain chemistry with substances; you can affect his brain chemistry with the way you interact.

When it comes to substance problems, however, it’s easy to lose objec­tive distance and let the problem taint our view of the whole person. The more unacceptable, frightening, or disturbing a person’s behavior seems to us, the more it pulls us to make judgments about the whole person(“loser,” “freak,” “bum,” “addict”). Such labels imply that the motivation behind the behavior is based on innate characteristics (weakness, weirdness, lazi­ness). The reality is that the motivation to use a substance rather than engage in some other behavior is based on how the outcome of that choice feels to the person—smoking pot feels relaxing, for example, and doing a crossword feels boring. By understanding the different motivations behind each choice your loved one makes, you will be better equipped to look at the problem clearly without judging, writing off, or hating the person for it.”

This new form of interacting (including evidence based treatments for addiction such as Motivational Interviewing) may turn out to be the next great wave in terms of successful addiction treatment.  Learning to listen better to our loved one, acknowledging him and his struggles, offering kindness and outside the box attention, holding him in love and providing a motivation to help him make healthy choices (within boundaries and while keeping ourselves healthy) may be a new key to unlock more hope for recovery from addiction.