The addicted mind - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

The addicted mind

Written by on September 1, 2015 in Relationships, Wellness with 0 Comments

imagesNature or nuture? Do we do what we do primarily because that was always our destiny, or does our childhood environment play the larger part in shaping our future? It’s an age-old question, and one that’s often posed in relation to addiction, be it to substances or behaviour. Is someone’s alcoholism or compulsive shopping largely the outcome of their genetic makeup, or is their dysfunctional upbringing mostly to blame? Yet there are those in the field who would argue somewhat controversially that this question has already been answered, among them Canadian physician, Gabor Mate, Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Criminology, at Simon Fraser University, who’s being interviewed here.

According to Mate, “Genes do not cause addictions. At the very most they will make somebody more susceptible to them. But we know, both from animal studies and from human experience, that even creatures with the genetic predispositions for addiction will not be addicted if they are brought up in a proper environment.”

By way of illustration, Mate cites some striking research including the now famous Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies conducted in the US. These looked at 17,000 mostly middle class individuals, at least half of whom were university educated, and correlated “the incidence of adult outcomes with childhood adversity.” Mate says that for each of these adverse experiences, anything from physical, sexual or emotional abuse, to the death of a parent, “the risk of addiction went up exponentially. So by the time a male child has experienced six of these adversities, his risk of becoming an injection-using substance-dependent adult is 4,600 percent greater than of a male child with no such experience. A 46-fold increase if you will.”

Furthermore, the work of neuroscientists over the past three decades seems to confirm the brain itself is shaped by early experience. Mate explains, “the brain circuits that are implicated in drug addiction, the opiate circuitry, the circuitry of reward and pleasure, the circuitry of incentives and motivation which is the dopamine circuitry, these brain chemicals and circuits are actually shaped by the early experiences. And, unless the child has a set of nurturing, connected, attuned, emotionally available adults, the brain in the early years does not develop optimally.”

But this is not about pointing the finger at lousy parenting. On the contrary, Mate believes parents are often just as much victims of circumstance as their children. “It’s not a question of poor parenting, it’s a question of stressed parenting … So it’s never a question of blaming individual parents, all parents do their best and they all love their kids. The question is, how stressed are they, how traumatised are they, and what is their situation?”

Mate says he’s supportive of 12 step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous to help people living with addiction but says “this belief that [alcoholics] are by nature addicts is simply not true, and it’s a way of avoiding the pain of dealing with their trauma. All the behaviours of addiction, whether it’s to sex, shopping, food, the internet, gambling, work, whatever it happens to be, they distract your from your emotional pain and discomfort. So my first question is not why the addiction, but why the pain?”

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