Keep it in mind




It can be so helpful to know that something you feel in your body isn’t necessarily caused by anything physical; it could be caused by your mind.

Addiction is almost always explained entirely in terms of physical effects. It is true that the things we become addicted to, including sugar, all have the potential to become addictions because of the effect they have on our biochemistry, and especially that of our brains.

Of course there are major differences in these effects. Smoking a cigarette is not the same as smoking crack cocaine. Eating sweets is not the same as taking amphetamines. But all of these can become addictive largely because of their various effects on neurotransmitters, which are the chemical signals between the neurons (cells) in our brains. They increase the levels of the neurotransmitters, in time cause resistance known as down-regulation or in some cases they mimic them by duplicating their effects.

People don’t usually become addicted to smoking herbal cigarettes, drinking water or eating celery, the reason being that these things don’t have this effect on our brain chemistry, causing the release of dopamine especially, and endogenous opioids.

Often referred to as reward chemicals, they produce positive feelings of relaxation, confidence, energy and even euphoria. They make us feel cozy, happy and alert. These feelings of satisfaction and security are what we all yearn for, so it’s no wonder we repeat them. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

For exactly the same reasons, some people can become hooked on activities such as gambling, shopping and exercise. The neurotransmitters are generated by our own bodies, and for some people the anticipation and excitement of certain activities creates a rush or ‘hit’ of these chemicals, rather than a steady dose at a steady pace. The experience of sexual orgasm is created by a sudden rush of dopamine, so it’s easy to see why we get so interested in seeking out ways to simulate this excitement.

Pages: 1 2 3 4


  1. Janet

    Thanks Gillian – your article is excellent, as always – well researched and interestingly written.

  2. Maggi

    Just finished reading the book “Addiction: A Disorder of Choice”, written about data on illegal drug use that shows that it’s the mental side of things that works to make nearly all illegal drug users quit by age 30 and in a way that doesn’t support the disease model of addiction. Of course, possibly going to jail and having the drug sources be a lot harder to find than the nearest supermarket or gas station helps. But the main influence was seeing that the substance use wasn’t nearly as fun as it used to be and it was getting in the way of other pursuits even more important than getting that high. Cravings did NOT go away with such insights. They just weren’t perceived as being strong enough to be the deciding factor anymore. Author Gene M. Heyman also went on to explain how it usually takes some intellectual effort to combat instincts that have been usurped by modern substances or activities that humans didn’t have excessive access to before. This is likely because it can also take awhile for the benefits of the new regime to compete with the in-the-moment advantages of the old. I suspect with such easy access to high-reward food, the timeline for reducing the attachment to food might be even longer.

    BTW, one of the factors that seemed to affect whether users could kick the drug on their own, and it definitely applied in only a minority of the cases, was comorbid psychiatric disorders. The ability to think clearly is a huge advantage. I hope to think that enough of the masses have the right ability to do it, once they really get the options. What are they? Stay stuck, get more stuck, get less stuck, get unstuck, all with their own difficulties and consequences. I think that with food, getting less stuck is the most viable option for most. That’s one of the reasons I love the title of your book. Thin might not be possible but eating less very likely is!

    • Thank you so much for this, Maggi. I’ve ordered the book and look forward to reading. As the author is a Lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Medical School I’m hoping for some strong research and evidence behind this idea – what a great start to the year for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.