The connection between love and addiction may not be immediately obvious, but the brain chemistry behind both is actually very similar. Science is revealing why love is the key to solving addiction problems, not punishment. This understanding can better help all of us to heal addiction in ourselves and others.
Your Brain on Love
Two neurotransmitters in your brain play a large role in how you respond to love.
Dopamine is released when you experience feelings of love, especially during the initial phases of romantic love. Dopamine makes us feel pleasure and often brings a desire for more of the same pleasurable experiences.
Oxytocin is the next neurotransmitter to come into play. Also known as the “love hormone”, oxytocin naturally promotes bonding with others and social harmony. This hormone is more active during longer-term relationships, including those with family and friends. It helps cultivate a general feeling of wellbeing and happiness.
Interestingly, research has found that your oxytocin system is impaired during the initial stages of romantic love. This lack of oxytocin causes a loss of cognitive control and social functioning, which could explain some of the wild feelings and behavior with new love.
Although, after a few months of being in love, your oxytocin system will come back online again. This helps with bonding and the development of long-term relationships as your oxytocin kicks back in.
Your Brain with an Addiction
The same dopamine and oxytocin systems are affected by addictions, but with one major difference.
Drug and behavioral addictions activate the same dopamine response in your brain. You’re flooded with pleasurable feelings and you want more, the same as with new, romantic love.
But, unlike love, your oxytocin system stays permanently impaired when you have an addiction. Your oxytocin remains low, which also continues to impair your cognitive and social functioning.
You can get stuck in a chemical loop of repeating the addictive compulsion to get the dopamine high, without the moderating effects of oxytocin. This also means addictions will never help you reach a natural state of happiness and wellbeing like healthy relationships.
Loving relationships will help your oxytocin system get back into balance and support quitting your addictive behaviors.
Lessons from Portugal
A few decades ago, Portugal had become a hub for illegal drug activity. HIV and hepatitis infections were escalating, and heroin addiction had reached epidemic proportions.
In the late 90s, the government summoned a team of experts to examine the newest research on addictions and what could help turn the epidemic around. They found that the traditional “war on drugs” approach that punishes addicts simply does not work to stop drug problems.
Research clearly shows that factors like having social connections, loving relationships and a sense of purpose in life are what can help addicts recover. Based on these findings, Portugal took the radical step of decriminalizing all drugs in 2001, including heroin and cocaine. But they didn’t stop there.
Any drug users who are caught get sent to the Ministry of Health instead of being criminally charged. They meet with a panel of typically a doctor, a social worker and support team who develop a personalized rehabilitative approach for the person. This can include going a treatment facility, a back-to-work program or other social support programs.
Rather than being punished, addicts are supported towards recovery. And the results of this positive approach have been astounding. These are a few statistics that show how successful Portugal’s new model has been since it started in 2001.
- Between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in drug treatment increased more than 60 percent. Treatment is voluntary, which makes this number even more impressive.
- The number of people sent to court for drug offenses declined more than 60 percent by 2013.
- Between 2000 and 2013, new HIV infections among drug users declined from 1,575 to 78. New AIDS cases declined from 626 to 74.
- The number of drug overdose deaths decreased from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012.
- A 2015 study found the per capita social cost of drug misuse reduced by 18 percent since 2001.
Johann Hari has an excellent TED talk on the causes of addiction and why a loving, supportive approach like Portugal’s is exactly what’s needed to help those struggling with addiction.
How You Can Harness Love to Beat Addictions
Invest in your relationships. The best investment you can make is spending time with your loved ones. Find something you enjoy doing together, like going for a hike or simply hanging out at a pub. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, simply being there for each other can mean a lot.
Reach out. If you feel your drug use or a negative behavior are becoming a problem, talk to someone you trust about it. Opening up and sharing how you feel is an excellent first step towards dealing with the issue. And if you don’t know anyone you feel comfortable talking to, find a local health care provider you can speak with.
Volunteer. Supporting a cause that’s meaningful to you is helpful in its own right. But it also boosts your sense of purpose and positive brain chemicals, and you may meet some awesome people along the way.
Help a friend. If you see someone you love going down a wrong path in life, let them know you’re there for them no matter what. Offer your help to quit their addiction, but don’t judge them if they refuse. Your unconditional support can make a big difference in the long run.
Find meaningful work. Do you hate your job? Work is often such a big part of our lives that when it’s not going well, the accumulated stress can promote addictive behaviors. Perhaps it’s time to change your career or find a job that supports what you love in life rather than drains you. And a workplace where everyone is happy and engaged will make sure you all get a healthy dose of feel-good brain chemicals.