Article: Anxiety, Addiction and Neuroplasticity... Oh My!

Here is an interesting article about addiction and neuroplasticity. Articles and science about addiction always interest me because of some of the strong parallels between addiction and anxiety. I don't know about you, but I often felt as though anxiety were an addiction to comfort, both physical and emotional experiences alike. 

How we view addiction has changed in the past and is now changing again. Addiction used to be viewed as a matter of poor willpower. In the second half of the 1900s however, movements like Alcoholics Anonymous, have helped shift our cultural perspective so that addiction has come to be seen as a disease. A disease is something beyond our control. We need outside assistance from medical professionals, a higher power, etc. What's more, addiction has traditionally been seen as something we can never fully recover from - an addict is always an addict. However, beginning 20 years ago and growing increasingly vocal, neuroscientists are arguing more and more against the addiction-as-disease perspective.

Recent research in neuroplasticity indicates that addiction does indeed cause physical changes to the brain, but this new science also finds that the brain can be purposefully reshaped. A new book cited in the article, "The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease" by Dr. Marc Lewis, makes that very case. Dr. Lewis and many other neuroscientists are arguing that taking power away from addicts, by treating their addictions as a disease that they are powerless to overcome on their own, is actually not a particularly effective way to promote recovery. Just as addicts learn destructive habits, so too can they unlearn them and replace them with positive, constructive behaviors.

This finding, the heart of an emerging science known as neuroplasticity, is as true for those of us struggling with anxious behaviors as it is for those with chemical dependencies. And what's more, anxious behaviors (and chemical dependencies for that matter) don't need to be life threatening or marriage-ending to matter; more mild anxious behaviors can still hurt, can still affect us everyday. Maybe we've come to reach for our iPhone whenever we're alone because it's uncomfortable to listen to our own nagging thoughts that we're lonely or sad. Or maybe it's easier to continuously seek reassurance from our significant others or our friends than it is to sit and live with a little bit of doubt. Or maybe we've become addicted to thinking, repeatedly having the same little conversations with ourselves (rumination) to talk ourselves out of some fear or worry. These anxious behaviors are addictions too. Our brains were just doing their job, and they can unlearn those unhelpful pathways and replace them with constructive ones too. As Dr. Lewis notes of addicts, “they don’t need medical intervention in order to change their lives. What they need is sensitive, intelligent social scaffolding to hold the pieces of their imagined future in place — while they reach toward it.”