The lure of destructive, addictive behavior stems, ironically, from a deeply embedded instinct for self-preservation.
“We all have this wonderful drive to survive, so we look for something to soothe us when we’re in unbearable pain,” says Coraline Robinson, program director at Balance Treatment Center, which provides mental health and addiction rehabilitation services in San Luis Obispo and Calabasas.
People with strong support networks usually choose healthy coping mechanisms, such as confiding in loved ones or channeling their pain into advocacy or a purposeful job, Robinson says. But sometimes, people turn to drugs, alcohol, binge eating, gambling, risky sex or even dangerously excessive exercise.
There are many triggers that can nudge people into activity that should be avoided completely or at least limited, Robinson says. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, losing a home in a wildfire; any severe loss can potentially push someone over the edge.
People who are less privileged or have a weak or absent emotional support network are the most vulnerable. So are people with untreated mental illness because they often self-medicate.
“They’re the most likely to look for quick fixes that are the most damaging, because these behaviors work really well in the immediacy but can sicken or even kill you in the long run,” Robinson says.
Addictive behaviors are attractive in the short-term because they release dopamine, a compound in the body that acts as a neurotransmitter for the brain’s pleasure and reward activity. It also regulates emotional responses, which makes it a natural painkiller.
The problem is that the body builds up tolerance over time to the activity and requires more and more of it to achieve the euphoria of the first experience. Eventually, the user needs to abuse substances not to feel high, but to merely feel normal.
“The crash is really strong, so the drive for more is even harder,” Robinson says.
If you’re worried that someone you care about may have developed an addiction, here are some red flags that indicate trouble:
1. A change in eating habits, either a lot less or a lot more than normal
2. A change in sleep habits, either severe lethargy or severe insomnia
3. Wild and sudden mood swings
4. A change in personality, such as people who have always been bubbly and charismatic becoming uncharacteristically quiet or insecure people suddenly having boundless confidence
5. A steep drop in performance at school or work
6. Loss of interest in activities they used to be passionate about
7. Social isolation from friends and family
It’s important to remember that real coping mechanisms are not short-term solutions, Robinson says.
“The things that are most sustainable and healthy take time,” she says.
Addiction counseling is extremely important and often covered by insurance, Robinson says. Other resources include local peer support meetings through such organizations as Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous, as well as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
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