The brain registers all pleasures in the same area—our rewards center. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released when we experience pleasure, whether it be from a drug, sex, a good meal, a cash prize, or an accomplishment. Drugs and alcohol, on the other hand, can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine as other natural rewards.
These powerful, reliable dopamine surges train our brains to continue seeking our substance of choice to feel the same pleasure, even though we eventually need more and more of the substance to maintain the huge surges. Unfortunately, this addictive cycle can manifest with anything that floods our rewards center and that we continue to do in a habitual or ritualistic way.
We don’t need to stay away from pleasure altogether, but we do need to be aware of our addictive tendency towards escapism – trying to run away from life and reality. I still have addictions in sobriety, but it is possible to find healthy pleasure in these things without using them to excess. My addiction manifests in all sorts of obsessive behaviors when I want to escape reality. I’m not drinking or using, but am I still fiend-ing for something?
Believe it or not, caffeine is considered a psychoactive drug—a legal stimulant—that’s used daily across the world. It can be found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate, and certain medicines. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, giving us a boost of energy, but are my 24-ounce energy drinks hurting me?
According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 400 mg of caffeine daily is safe for most healthy adults. That’s about four cups of brewed coffee, but a 24 ounce energy drink may contain 500 mg of caffeine or more! Intake of 300 mg or more at one time is know as caffeine intoxication, or “the jitters.”
Heavy caffeine use can cause insomnia, anxiety, stomach problems, heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, and even increase risk-taking behavior. As an addict, I have to draw a line: am I’m looking to wake up in the morning with my coffee, or am I pounding Red Bulls looking for a buzz?
I know cigarettes are a bad habit, but why do we like it so much? When you smoke a cigarette, nicotine is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and within 10 seconds it reaches the brain. The brain releases adrenaline and dopamine, which creates that buzz of pleasure and energy.
But, the buzz fades quickly and the body builds up a high tolerance to nicotine, so you’ll need to smoke more cigarettes in order to get nicotine’s pleasurable effects again. Then, when I try to quit, I get moody, irritable, and a terrible headache. This is called nicotine withdrawal. (All of this sound eerily familiar?)
We know that smoking isn’t doing our lungs any favors, but perhaps we should look at the other consequences of keeping this addiction in our lives. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism conducted a study which determined that alcoholics who quit smoking during their time in recovery were 25 percent more likely to maintain long-term sobriety. Things to consider in our recovery.
I am always chewing gum. Even something so seemingly harmless can manifest as an addiction in our lives. Gum addicts usually chew one or more packs of gum in the course of a day. We may like it because it freshens our breath, maybe you want to whiten your teeth, maybe it helps us concentrate, maybe it’s just nice to blow bubbles.
The truth is, chewing gum constantly can cause serious problems like TMJ, a condition that causes pain in the chewing muscles and joints that connect your jaw to your skull. You swallow excess air when you chew gum and gum often contains artificial sweeteners, which can cause bowel problems, abdominal pain, and cramping. Regular, sugary gum puts you at risk for cavities and tooth decay.
Ultimately, if you’re like me and you chew enough gum to worry about these problems: is your gum chewing pleasurable, is it helping you focus? Chewing gum can make us forget about drinking water, eating when we’re hungry, and listening to the person we’re talking to. Is your gum chewing a way to divert your attention throughout the day?
When I’m hungry and in a hurry, you can find me grabbing gas station snacks, in the chips and cookies aisle at the grocery store, in the drive-thru lane. All convenient choices for a busy lifestyle, I might know they’re not the healthiest choices, but are these choices threatening my sobriety?
Sugar and sweets are often recommended to help with cravings early in sobriety, because our bodies used to metabolize sugars from alcohol and drugs. Candy and junk food may be the lesser of the evils. But, large amounts of sugar, high-calorie foods, and high-fat foods light up the same area of our brains as drugs like heroin and cocaine. These surges of dopamine and sugar are eventually followed by a crash, leaving us craving more sugar and more dopamine.
Studies have even shown that consuming these foods in large amounts leads to compulsive eating habits resembling drug addiction. We want to un-train our brains to expect these dopamine spikes, which might lead us back to using substances to find them. We know eating healthy foods is good for our bodies, but it’s also helpful to our sobriety.
Exercise seems like a fantastic addiction to have, a great way to stay healthy. And exercise is an awesome asset in recovery because it causes our body to release endorphins, which are neurochemicals that activate our opioid receptors like a natural painkiller and bring on feelings of euphoria. In the long-run, exercise can improve our mood and self-esteem because of the serotonin released.
So what’s the problem? I love to run, it’s a form of meditation for me where I don’t worry about what happened earlier or what I need to do later. I take great pride in getting faster and getting closer to a marathon. You can train hard and take pride in your work, but an exercise addiction is another form of escapism, focusing mainly on the body’s physical results rather than on the enjoyment of exercise.
Like any addiction, you can build up a tolerance, needing more exercise to achieve the desired results. You can go into withdrawal, becoming agitated and tense when you don’t exercise. It may become difficult or impossible to take days off, even when you’re injured. It may start to take over your schedule, with all of your time dedicated to exercise. It can interfere with work, relationships, and friends. We work hard in sobriety to maintain balance—our bodies do need exercise to be healthy, but in moderation.
Even if you don’t have Netflix, most of us make time to watch the shows we love. The phenomenon of binge-watching, generally defined as watching 2-6 episodes of a show in one sitting, has become more and more normal. With Netflix, Hulu, on-demand viewing, and DVR capabilities, almost anyone today can binge-watch. For addicts and alcoholics, binge anything can be problematic.
There’s a sense of satisfaction at the end of an episode, season, or series – our brains feel accomplished. This triggers a release of dopamine, again activating the reward center of our brains which motivates us to keep watching. We can feel happiness from the good entertainment we get, and some studies even show that the bright lights of the TV can improve our mood. But we can begin to neglect other aspects of our health and our life if all of our time is invested in watching shows. The pleasure in watching TV can be perfectly healthy, we just need to be wary of bingeing too hard and hooking our sensitive rewards centers on another addiction.
Most people today can be seen pulling out their smartphone to check the time, check for text messages, take a selfie. We’re on our phones when we’re driving (please don’t), when we’re crossing the street (also don’t), when we’re having a conversation with another person (pretty rude).
I have been guilty of all of these things at some point, despite the complete disregard for safety and common courtesy, but this compulsive checking of your phone might also be a problem for your sobriety. Our smartphones keep us connected—we can text, tweet, post, poke, snap whenever we want. We stay updated with our friends and family, and sometimes with people we don’t even talk to anymore. This feeling of connection makes us happy, and scientists have found that our brain gets a hit of dopamine when we hear our phones beep, ring, or vibrate.
If we become consumed in our smartphones, we have the potential to become addicted to the validation we get when someone virtually contacts us or responds to us. Multi-tasking in this way, all day every day, actually hinders our ability to focus and our creative capabilities. We don’t want to get lost in the digital world, a constant form of escape that we can fall back on when we’re bored or don’t want to talk to the person next to us. We might lose touch with reality, our actual lives, and the actual people around us who are a lot cooler than a profile picture.
Recovery isn’t about being a monk and denying yourself all pleasures, and I’m not telling you to stay away from these things. These are simply foods and behaviors that are potentially addictive. If we, as addicts, are aware of the dangers of going overboard in any of these arenas, we are better able to monitor and alter our behaviors. Moderation doesn’t come naturally to me at all, but giving it a try in my daily life might protect my long-term sobriety.