Change that sticks. Finally.

Emotional Addictions, part 2 – The Neuroscience

Posted May 6, 2015

Yesterday was a brief overview of neurophysiology and today I’ll get into a little bit more detail about how emotional addictions work.

Of course, I can’t possibly do justice to the whole body of neurophysiology work in this post but I find the subject very interesting and think this light touch will help you be a little more aware of what goes on in your body especially when you attempt to make a change. So I hope you find this interesting and useful.

It all began in the 1970s when Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion) discovered the opiate receptor in the brain. When you take a codeine tablet for pain, for example, codeine enters the bloodstream then circulates until it finds the opiate receptor where it then “plugs in” to the brain and does its work to reduce pain. Well known opiates include morphine, codeine and heroin. When the heroin user shoots up, the heroin enters the bloodstream, finds and plugs in to the receptors just like codeine but it has a little different impact on the body.
In addition to opiates that can be introduced from outside the body (orally, by injection, smoking, etc.), there are some well-known opiates created internally by the human body called endorphins and these also connect to the brain through opiate receptors. Endorphins are the chemicals known for creating the “runner’s high”: When you go out for a long run and come back and feel exhilarated you are under the influence of your internally produced opiates, aka endorphins.

It was known fairly early on that externally introduced chemicals and body-manufactured chemicals were treated in much the same way by the brain. In fact the brain doesn’t know the difference between the two.

Candace Pert also found that each human emotion creates a specific chemical in the body and these chemicals, like endorphins, also connect to receptors in our brain and produce an effect on the body. This is what’s going on when we feel our body change even as we think about something we are passionate about or angry about. We know what fear, anger, guilt, shame, excitement, love and hate feel like in our body. Each emotion creates a unique “chemical cocktail” which goes through our brain and then affects the body. It is happening all the time.
More recent discoveries in neurophysiology (see Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza, D.C.) show that not only are the emotional chemicals unique but the receptors in our brains are specialized for each chemical cocktail! There are receptors for the chemical cocktail created by anger and receptors for the drama chemicals and the same for guilt, shame, pride, power, etc. And of course there are specialized receptors for nicotine and other drugs.

Then an interesting thing happens. If you bathe the body in a particular chemical, it will build more receptors to handle the load. So the number of specialized receptor cells increases in response to the presence of the chemicals. So the more you smoke, the more receptors you create. The more you allow yourself to indulge in that drama fit, the more drama receptors you will have. More guilt, more guilt receptors.

Now our difficulties begin when these receptors get hungry. ( And some seem to be more demanding about being fed than others). But they’re only interested in their special chemicals. This creates what we know of as cravings. We’re used to thinking of cravings in terms of food and drugs (nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, etc) but it’s happening with emotions too and those are harder to notice. If we succumb to bouts of guilt or shame, it’s quite possibly because we’ve got these receptors egging us on; they need that emotion. And then we feed them with an attack of guilt and perhaps we grow even more receptors to manage the guilt chemicals. It’s a self reinforcing system. And it’s what makes an addiction.
So in our daily lives we go about our business of living. And meanwhile our body is full of these receptors demanding various things. If we have nicotine receptors we smoke, if we have endorphin receptors we go for a run, if we have drama receptors we create a drama, the people pleaser receptors encourage us to say “yes, of course I’ll do that for you”, the domineering receptors has us overpower someone, and the anger addict gets angry.

Dispenza describes the body as being in charge at this point. If there’s a hunger for guilt, anger, drama, domination, the body will nudge the person towards that behavior and if we’re not conscious about it and we don’t do anything to stop it, then we’ll make it happen. Before we know it, we’re throwing another of our favorite fits.

Now maybe this really wouldn’t be a problem, except that many people want to change. Imagine a child growing up having to please others all the time in order to stay safe. The child’s body becomes chemically adapted to the “people pleasing” state and builds many receptors for the chemical cocktail created when being nice or sacrificing himself for someone else. This is now the chemical status quo. The body will demand this chemical and anything different will feel uncomfortable or “not right”. And in fact, it isn’t “right” for that body at that time; it’s something different and foreign. It’s not what the body wants or is used to. So when the adult tries to learn to say no and stand up for himself, it’s extremely uncomfortable and the body fights it and will try to force the more comfortable state of saying “yes of course”. If the person doesn’t know this is going on, he will feel that saying no doesn’t work, people pleasing is just “who he is”, he will likely even quit trying to change and will resign himself to be a people pleaser forever. Fortunately, it isn’t true. It isn’t an identity, it can be changed. Unfortunately, giving up happens way too often with anger, abuse, being a victim, guilt, shame, self-doubt, self-criticism, the list goes on and on and on.

We need to know that we can overcome our emotional and behavioral addictions. We just need to find the discipline, commitment and of course a reason to bother.

I’ll talk more about that in my next blog entry!


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