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What is the Compulsion?

addictive compulsion

Any addict or alcoholic knows exactly how the compulsion to use feels. This is the engine underneath the entire problem of addiction. Something acts as a trigger, and this can really be almost anything. Certainly moments of extreme stress or extreme happiness are always obvious triggers. But for the addict or alcoholic, the trigger can something completely trivial. Passing an advertisement for vodka while driving home from work, a memory of a good/bad time, talking to friend on the phone—just about anything can trigger the compulsion to use.

Once this compulsion is set in motion it feels absolutely impossible to ignore. Anyone who has been through it can tell you about the interior monologue that ensues. Don’t do it. Just ignore it. Get home and you will be okay. This goes on variably depending on the person and the strength of the compulsion. In the end, the result is always the same. The addict or alcoholic gives in and drinks or uses. Thus the defeating and horrifying cycle of addiction. We know it is happening and yet we do it anyway.

New research on the nature of this compulsion may offer some helpful possibilities as we consider the problem of compulsions. It has long been the consensus of the medical and psychiatric community that the addictive compulsion to use was a matter of the age-old stimulus and response reaction. We become trained to respond to a specific stimulus by the desired result we get when we respond in a certain way. Any drinker enjoys the effects of alcohol. But he alcoholic loses control of the desired effect of alcohol as the stimulus-response condition becomes too strong.

However, some new medical evidence complicates this simple formula. Researchers have found that there is indeed a center in the brain which becomes programmed for the stimulus-response, but this center in the brain is not the only part of the brain which controls this condition.

It was believed that just one neurological feature of the brain was at work in responding to stimuli and the processing the rewards we get from those stimuli. Researchers have found that another part of the brain is at work in addicted people and in people with OCD. This area of the brain processes the conscious mechanisms which go into our understanding of the stimulus-response effect. What this means is that most of the neurological work which controls our reaction to triggers and subsequent response in the form of drinking and using is actually completely conscious.

The neurological pathways which process the compulsion are conscious and readily available for individual understanding. The implication here is that we may have more control over these compulsions that we realize. This is not to diminish the compulsions. Rather, the compulsion to drink or use is much more pliable than we thought. Addiction is far more amenable to treatment that researchers previously believed. This is good news for those facing addiction problems. The disease is more treatable than was once thought.

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