Stress Responses and Addiction

In Latest Research, Substance Use / Compulsions by christine

Stress Responses and Addiction

Did you know that our stress responses are a built-in survival mechanism that alerts us (and other mammals) to danger?  We need stress to keep us safe.  Different people respond to stressful events in different ways.  These differences are categorized under four themes:

  1. Flight Response
  2. Freeze Response
  3. Orient Response
  4. Fight Response

 Our stress responses are developmentally imprinted in our first few years of life and are molded by way of parenting, interactions with our environments, genetic and epigenetic dispositions, traumatic experiences, and other factors (in psychology terms, these considerations are often referred to as the diathesis stress model – a model used to consider the varying factors that contribute to presentations of psychopathology).  Identifying our stress responses and exploring our early-life developmental history can help us better treat problematic compulsions and substance misuse.   

Renowned addictions expert Dr. Gabor Mate worked for years in the drug-entrenched Downtown East Side (DTES) of Vancouver.  Mate states

In my 12 years of work as a physician in the DTES, I never met a female patient who had not been sexually abused as a child or adolescent, nor a male who had not suffered some form of severe trauma.

While not all persons with problematic substance abuse issues wind up on the streets, they almost all possess trauma of some kind or developmental disruptions from early life.  Oftentimes, known causes of trauma or developmental disruptions are unknown to the individual who struggles with a compulsion to self-soothe in maladaptive ways – these individuals often hold a believe that there is something “wrong” with them, when they are simply carrying out an outdated adaptation (to compensate for the needs that went unmet during significant developmental phases). 

Addictions to specific substances can indicate specific developmental adaptation areas that need to be healed.  For example: a flight response is correlated with the infancy developmental stage of belonging.  An appealing substance for someone with a deficit from this stage of life are hallucinogenic drugs, or a compulsion towards fantasy. 

For individuals with a propensity towards process addictions (shopping, internet, viewing pornography, TV binge-watching) or opioids, there are often disruptions in the one to eight months human developmental stage which correlates with the freeze response.  The nervous system characteristics of this needs fulfillment stage is surrender and fixation.

An orient response is often imprinted in roughly the first eight to eighteen months of life; a time when babies are learning to negotiate the relationship between Self and others (the autonomy developmental phase).  If optimal development is impeded at this time, a propensity for excitement and newness can be exacerbated.  Those embodying an orient response can often be identified by their impulsivity and risk-taking behaviour. Addictions correlated from disruptions in the autonomy development phase often involve stimulants, online gambling, and extreme sports/activities.     

The ages between two and four correspond with the developmental phases of will and power (do the “terrible twos” and toddler tantrums ring a bell?).  This is the time when the fight response comes online.  This is a challenging time for parents who struggle between knowing whether to punish or discipline. It is evidenced through the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study that children who receive punishment as a means of behavioural modification will contend with increased biological, psychological, and social problems throughout their lifespan (compared to those who were did not receive corporal punishment).  Such problems include metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, obesity, depression, anxiety, criminality/incarceration, unstable relationships, and alcoholism.     

It is important to note that research in neuroscience and addiction has come a whole long way in the last twenty years.  We once believed that we inherited an addiction gene from our ancestors.  That is not accurate.  Research now suggests that while there is still a genetic component that contributes to later life addiction, some researchers suggest that is it a mere 5-10%.  The bulk of what contributes to later life addiction is what is happening in one’s environment during important early-life human developmental phases.  An additional contribution is one’s temperament (something one is born with).  A “fussy” baby may cause a caregiver to lose patience, and thus treat that child different (possibly colder, punitive, avoidant) than they would an “easy” baby.  Not being optimally attuned to our caregiver in early-life creates what is know as insecure attachment (see here for more on this:

A re-framing of addiction is to view it as the user’s attempt to relieve psychological and emotional pain, or ease the stress of a developmental disruption.  Recognizing the emotional pain or incomplete/fragmented developmental stage that is presenting itself in the form of a harmful coping behaviour (a symptom), enables better treatment for addiction suffers where there has long been only a one-size-treats-all form of addiction recovery.  Many addiction treatment programs have not yet incorporated modern neuroscience and neuroplasticity research into their treatment plans (90% of what we know about the workings of the brain was only discovered in the last 20 years – an addictions program that has remained the same during that timeframe is not doing their due diligence to keep up with new and better methodologies).

 It is my hope that treatment options for addiction suffers will expeditiously improve over the ineffectively and often grossly overpriced mainstream options currently available.  For those struggling with addiction, there is hope – you need to find the right service provider to include targeting the root causation of pain rather than just the symptoms.