The Science of Soft-Core Addictions

As a young person feigning adulthood in a fast-paced city, who sometimes uses shower steam in place of an actual iron and views a mason jar as a drinking glass, decoration, and storage container, visiting my family home is a sandbox of tiny organizational miracles.

With a bursting full pantry, perfectly pressed clothes lining the closet, and fresh flower arrangement meant to look like an afterthought, my appreciation for home is magnified through wizened adult eyes. There is a level of comfort, cleanliness, and operational efficiency that my twenty-something brain finds incomprehensibly soothing.

“One day,” I think, “I too will be the type of person to wash and remove the stems from grapes before I put them in the fridge.”

Why is home so comforting? Because it is the ideal life environment. A loving family, fluffy bed, mother prepared meals, the “good” wine, and someone else’s credit card on the OnDemand account. Like I said, it’s a magical place.

And strangely, when I’m in this ideal environment, a place where every life need is met, I find myself unusually capable of breaking, changing, or creating new habits. Patterns that plague my ordinary life are somehow irrelevant or forgotten. Gone is the 2PM energy slump, the 4PM sugar craving, the 10PM Netflix binge.

I become temporarily inspired by my home-induced transformation. Why yes, this easy, breezy, Gwyneth Paltrow-esque freedom from mini-addictions, negativity, and life stress is my new norm. And I’m not alone.

Research finds behavior transformation is most successful on vacation because familiar cues and rewards are removed, and you have an ideal set of conditions to create new patterns.

But alas, more often than not, the ingrained habits creep back when I resume my loud, dirty, busy life. Indeed, with the removal of scented candles, fresh meals, and company of loved ones comes the renewed draw to caffeine, social media, and sassy reactivity.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with the idea that our environment can have a make-or-break impact on our habits. If it’s the cup of coffee or bar of dark chocolate itself driving cravings, when why is the itch promptly minimized when I’m in my version of “heaven on earth”?

As it turns out, the secret lies in Rat Park.

White-Nosed Mice: Stress, Addiction & Rat Park

Drugs are for thugs. Crack is whack. Don’t huff, don’t puff. Do dope, lose hope. And perhaps my favorite, put down the drugs and give Jesus a hug.

In the 1980s, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America promoted the so-called universally addictive nature of drugs in a simple rat experiment. Put a rat in an empty cage by itself with no stimulation. Give it a bottle of regular water and a bottle of cocaine water. Watch in non-amazement as nine out of ten rats guzzle the cocaine water to their widely advertised demise.

Through shamelessly bad science, they had “proven” addiction is entirely driven by chemical hooks in the drug. Holmes, you’ve cracked the case! #notreally #punny

 “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

-Advertisement, Partnership for a Drug Free America

Forward thinker and rat advocate, Professor Bruce Alexander, questioned these findings. Could it be the rat’s environment – not the drugs – driving the addiction? After all, cocaine does seem like a logical option when you’re trapped in a cage with no friends or stimulation other than a prodding death-check from a 23 year old, underpaid research assistant.

To test this theory, he built Rat Park, the equivalent of rodent Disney Land. Mickey Mouse would be thrilled. These interactive cages exploded with toys, food, friends, and sex partners. In essence, Professor Alexander built rat spring break.

When given the option of regular and cocaine water in these stimulating and enriched environments, none of the rats became addicted or died. They sampled the cocaine out of curiosity, but were able to carry on, addiction-free, in their happy rodent wonderland.

Human history spells this out many times over. In colonized tribes where alcohol is available but culture remains intact, addiction is a non-issue. But provide alcohol to natives whose traditions have been destroyed, and addiction reigns. In Nazi seized countries where a lively culture was overtaken by stress and environmental deprivation, we see deep rooted drug and alcohol abuse.

But admittedly, I’ve provided extreme examples. You and I might find it difficult to relate to the extreme deprivation of the rats, the crushing oppression of native tribes, and the subsequent drive to hardcore addiction. But what about the softcore cravings that we first world-ers face every day?

Turns out, it’s all fueled by the same stuff. Like the rats, when we’re stressed, lonely, under-stimulated, and in negative environments, vices start looking pretty sweet.

Soft-Core Addictions: Sugar, Social, Sex

Like sugar. Oh, honey, honey. God knows I love the stuff.

But like the stressed rats nursing their cocaine water, researchers at the University of Michigan found that sugar cravings as much as triple in response to increased stress hormones. Why is that? Because sugar actually reduces stress hormones in the body.

While this might seem like great news, the stress-reducing effect of sweets makes it all too easy for individuals in stressful environments, like inner-cities or culturally depressed regions, to succumb to sugar addiction. Similar to the cocaine-addicted rats, when we’re in freak-out mode, we’re more likely to crave sugar and eat compulsively. Remove the stress and the cravings diminish.

Personally, despite many vain attempts to eliminate sugar, the only periods of successful sugar abstinence overlap with times when I’ve been most socially prolific, constantly stimulated, in happy relationships, and least stressed. All of a sudden, I just don’t need the sugar rush. A more potent source of happiness and satisfaction replaces the craving.

“Sugar actually lights up the pleasure and reward center of our brain, Your initial craving for sugar, she says, begins when you start to feel stressed. It’s just our body’s way of taking a chill pill.”

-Rebecca Scritchfield, RD

And what about social? Author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products says that social media use, like sugar addiction, is triggered by stress, loneliness, and anxiety.

A California State University study scanned the brains of students with apparent Facebook addiction, and found that patterns of activity in the amygdala and striatum are on par with patterns seen in cocaine addiction.

It’s no secret that a strong, bi-directional relationship exists between social media use and poor mental health. Stress prompts the usage, and usage prompts stress (and FOMO). From my own experience, I know that when I’m truly happy, my Instagram feed is the last thing on my unworried mind.

“Brain imaging studies show that compulsive Internet use may induce changes in some brain reward pathways that are similar to that seen in drug addiction.”

-Sriram Chellappan, MD

And come on, what does sex have to do with it? Leave sex out of this, damn it. If you watch porn, you’re in good company with 66% of men and 41% of American women reporting monthly viewership. But like all behavior, there’s a fine line, with 18% of men claiming addiction or suspected addiction to pornography.

Surprise, surprise: Research finds the over-use of porn and porn addiction are precipitated by stress and toxic life environments.

Orgasm releases a dopamine-oxytocin high on par with a hit of heroin. Naturally, the brain finds porn an easy, guaranteed, low-effort way to deal with anxiety. If the environmentally-deprived rats were given mouse porn instead of cocaine water, they likely would have become sex crazed rather than drug addicted.

The phenomenon is the same. All you have to do is choose your drug.

Hack Your Environment to Smash Mini-Addictions

Why do I find it so easy to break bad habits when I’m at home with family support, bountiful creature comforts, and someone else doing the dishes?

Because it’s my version of Rat Park.

The reduction in stress and supplemental happy stimulation results in a literal lack of craving. I want for nothing, so toying with vice is unnecessary. On both an emotional and chemical level, I don’t need an extra boost to reach an expected threshold of happiness.

Where’s the life hack in this, you ask? Whether your soft-core addiction of choice is coffee or alcohol,  porn or Netflix, social media or sugar, try to find correlations between a given vice and your environment. If your new habit of daily doughnuts aligns with the start date of your new job, perhaps you should send out a few more resumes. If you find that a gin and tonic is the only way to deal with your girlfriend, it might be time to get on a dating app.

Cozy up to your version of Rat Park. Fill your life to the brim with its characteristics. Science indicates that you are more likely to break bad habits and create good ones when you’re in an environment full of resources, social connections, warmth, and comfort.

Maybe it’s a beach vacation, Friday night with your friends, or going home to family. Despite my sarcastic inner-dialogue and sassy thoughts to the contrary, there’s real substance to the notion of getting high on life.

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