“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety – it’s human connection”.
This was the claim made in an article that went viral early last year.
The writer, Johann Hari, came to this conclusion after 3 years of research interviewing addicts, their families and friends, scientists, politicians, doctors and addiction treatment specialists across 9 countries.
For many people, this was a totally new take on addiction, but for researchers of human attachment, it’s what they have known for years.
Results from the longest ever study on human happiness report that over and above everything else it is the quality of our closest relationships that predict health and happiness – and loneliness is toxic.
Good relationships keep us happy, healthy, fulfilled and alive for longer, and loneliness kills.
So why does a lack of connection lead to addiction?
We humans are hard-wired to connect to others. As a species, we had very little going for us in terms of protection. We were not especially fast or strong. We didn’t have a poisonous sting or a venomous bite.
Our only protection was in numbers and so for 99 % of our time on earth we lived in groups of about 40 people.
Evolution ensured our survival by giving us built-in attachment systems that pushed us to stay close to the tribe and emotions that ensured we cared enough about others to make sure they survived. Without these, we would never have survived as a species. Times might be different now – we can survive physically on our own – but our biological make-up is still the same as it was 10, 000 years ago.
Our biology still needs us to connect. Our brains are still wired to attach. When we experience emotional separation (you can still feel lonely in a crowd), our brain activates distressing emotions and a heightened stress response in an attempt to push us to connect.
If connection fails or we withdraw and isolate, the stress continues until we make the connections that we need. Often we are unaware of what is happening- we might not be able to recognise feelings of loneliness or emotional isolation. But our brain does. It doesn’t matter if we have all the money we need, a good career, a good-looking spouse and a few children running around.
If our needs for emotional connection are ignored, our brain will generate feelings of emptiness, restlessness, stress and deep dis-satisfaction.
We need others to help us reduce stress and regulate emotions. We need others to feel worthwhile, important, needed and cared for. Ultimately, we need others to feel that we matter and that we belong. When we don’t have this, we look for other ways to manage stress and numb the uncomfortable feelings that arise from feeling like we don’t matter.
We will attach to anything that gives relief and a sense of stability.
We attach to substances and we become addicted.
Why do some people find it so hard to make connections?
Our ability to navigate relationships successfully depends very much on us having certain skills.
Essentially, we need the ability to manage our own emotions well and understand the emotions of others. We need to have the capacity to feel empathy and compassion. We need to be able to exercise self-control and restraint and be able to look at situations from another person’s perspective.
The part of the brain that takes care of all of this (the pre-frontal cortex) develops within the first few years of life. But in order to develop to its optimal capacity, we need specific emotional input from the adults around us.
If we grow up with emotionally attuned care-givers that recognise and consistently respond to our emotional needs, the pre-frontal cortex develops to its full potential and we will develop a ‘secure’ attachment style. Securely attached children generally feel safe and comfortable in relationships. They have a basic sense of trust and safety and have developed the skills they need to relate to others in satisfactory ways – allowing for healthy connections
However, if our early relationships are neglectful, unpredictable, abusive, traumatic or emotionally lacking -we can end up with deficits in brain structures and an insecure attachment style. This leaves us struggling with emotional difficulties, a lack of self control and a vulnerability to acting on impulsive urges – traits that make it difficult to form and maintain connection. And traits that are very characteristic of addiction.
Without the stabilizing presence of close meaningful relationships, we can end up attaching to substances to provide the comfort, stability and emotional regulation that we lack.
The good news is – the brain has an incredible capacity to change and grow no matter how old you are.
It is through and within our connection to others that our brains can grow and change. Just as relationships can damage – they can also heal. Building meaningful, healthy and intimate relationships helps us to form new neural pathways and build up parts of the brain that we need to manage emotions, over-ride impulsiveness and ultimately overcome addictive behaviour.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a series of articles that go into more detail about attachment styles. You can find out what your style is and how it might be affecting your life. I’ll also be giving some practical steps you can use to start re-wiring your brain – so check back very soon.
In the meantime, you might want to listen to my interview with Lee Davy from The Alcohol & Addiction podcast -in which we discuss attachment and addiction and the importance of connection in recovery.
Kim Sandhu says
Thank you so much for this article. It’s as frightening as it is helpful to understand my own actions, reactions and impulsivity issues.
I found the Experiential Brain Development link incredible and found myself having to watch certain parts again and again to fully grasp the implications.
I’m hoping the neuroplasticity you mention will help going forward.
Recovery From Addiction Online says
Hi Kim, thank you for taking the time to reply – it really is incredible what we know now about how our early environment and experience impact brain development. There is also a great deal of evidence that certain genes are actually switched on or off depending on the type of emotional experience we have as a child. It is valuable information for over-coming addiction as it points to the skills that we need to incorporate into treatment.