Drug Addiction is Like Heart Disease

I was just asked, “How is drug addiction is similar to heart disease”, on a Foundations of Addiction’s homework assignment and was surprised at how similar they are.  Here are my thoughts:

Both drug addiction and heart disease start with behaviors that ultimately lead to the development of the condition. With drug addiction this is the use of drugs in an experimental or social pattern. With heart disease this is the unconscious eating of food, refraining from regular exercise, and other behaviors such as smoking cigarettes.

In neither case does the person believe that their actions could lead to a problem, and even if they have some forethought, there is a tendency for them to minimize the possible consequences in their mind.  A friend, who is studying the effect of time on decision making at Wharton School of Business, reminds me that the further off the possible consequence the less value the consequence has.  With drug use, most early users do not even entertain the possibility of becoming addicted, while with people making poor diet and lifestyle choices the consequences are so far in the future they also seem like an improbability.

Both diseases have a genetic component as well. Addiction and heart disease tend to run in families. This predisposition means that the same type and level of use in the future addict or cardiac patient may not result in the development of disease in others when they use at that level. This reality, coupled with the time delay in the progression of the illnesses, contributes to the ability of a person to deny that their behaviors are creating problems.

In addition, both diseases are multifaceted. Heart disease results from a combination of factors including behavioral, genetic, environmental, and social.  In addition, since food addiction and cigarette addiction are risk factors for heart disease, the same psychological issues that lead to any addiction can contribute to heart disease.

We also know now that some addictions lead to hard to reverse changes in how the brain works, much like the damage of a heart attack tends to be permanent. The organs affected may be different, but the seriousness of the illnesses are the same.  Although, I would be remiss not to mention that some addictions lead to cardiovascular issues such as heart failure and stroke.

Indeed, it appears that the two diseases in terms of fundamental etiology, are more similar than they are different.

Thought Addiction

Yesterday we began a discussion of checking out reality by observing our mind.  One of the first things you notice when you begin to watch the mind is that you cannot find anyone in control of it.  It seems to “have a mind of its own”.  In reality the 90% of our mind that is subconscious is what is actually ruling the show.  The 10% that is conscious is what makes it through the filters of our subconscious. How to establish a unified mind will be the topic of a future post.  Today, lets talk about one type of automatic thought pattern.

This pattern I call thought addiction.  It involves repetitious thoughts that lead to chemical changes in the body. Here is a personal example of it in action.

About two months ago, my work settled down into a nice pattern.  I had lost a major client earlier in the year, but a second client showed up with additional work.  As I planned a summer vacation, I noticed that I was constantly thinking about how great my work was.  I also kept noting how for the first time in over five years I had enough money to cover my expenses.  These thought were quite pleasant, but also quite repetitious.

I realized how much energy was going into repeating these thoughts over and over.  The pay off was that they were pleasant and I imagined that they helped me release some happy chemical as I repeated them again and again.  This is why I called it a thought addiction.  In my case I was addicted to a happy chemical, but I imagine many people use obsessive worry to produce a similar change in biochemistry.  Other people find the chemicals released with anger to be stimulating as well.

The release of happy chemicals is one of the premises behind the power of positive thinking.  I was learning first hand how thinking positively actually makes one feel better.  I can appreciate that this practice releases a powerful endogenous drug, however, I’m actually trying to weed out all addiction and behaviors that are based on clinging to certain states.  I can imagine a better state beyond such petty addiction.

Yesterday, I noticed a similar thing happening as I performed my last massage.  I kept thinking about my day off today and what I was going to do.  Again, I can only see the purpose as creating “happy chemicals”.  I was avoiding the moment and the richness of the moment, perhaps because I was a little tired and the massage was a two hour one so the novelness of the activity was wearing off.

True freedom comes when I no longer distract myself from the moment by essentially meaningless thoughts.  True freedom comes with equanimity and equanimity comes from the insights that are gained by exploring and investigating how I think and act.