Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital issued the following announcement on Sept. 5.
Friendships are often among the first and most tragic casualties of substance abuse. If your friend is an addict, the actions they take during periods of excessive drug and alcohol use can easily strain that friendship to its breaking point. But according to one of the most frequently cited studies on addiction, the support you provide your friend can play an incredibly vital role in their struggle towards recovery.
How “Rat Park” Changed the Way We Think About Addiction
Bruce Alexander’s groundbreaking 1970s experiment — often referred to as “Rat Park” —changed how scientists and doctors think about addiction. Drugs were once perceived as being irresistibly addictive, inevitably and invariably making the user dependent on them. Rat Park offered compelling evidence that the user’s overall happiness and surrounding environment played a big role, too.
Just like human beings, rats are social creatures. Yet researchers throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s typically studied them in an environment that kept them isolated and confined to a very small space for much (if not all) of their lives. Alexander wondered if that depressing environment made the creatures more likely to abuse drugs as a way to escape their surroundings.
He found that to be the case when he supplied one population of rats with a big box full of fresh cedar chips and boxes and cans in which to hide. He kept another population of rats trapped by themselves. The lonely rats were much more likely to choose morphine-spiked water than sugar water. The lucky rats in Rat Park, by contrast, had access to the same morphine-spiked water but showed a distinct preference for sugar water. Here’s a summary in comic form.
To be clear, environment is not the only factor that matters in addiction, and some critics have faulted the study for overemphasizing the effects of the environment. While some substances are in fact inherently addictive and genetics can play a role as well, the major takeaway of the study remains true for rats and humans alike. Your social environment affects your ability to recover from addiction.
A Friend in Need
We talked to AMITA Health psychiatrist Gregory Teas, MD about the substance abuse treatment center at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital Hoffman Estates, and found out that the social network of a substance abuse patient plays an even bigger role than we would have guessed.
“Once a person gives up their drug of choice, they need to find new ways to derive pleasure and enjoy life as much as possible,” says Dr. Teas. “We’re basically social creatures, and overcoming substance abuse without friends and social networks is very difficult[SB1].” That’s how things played out in Rat Park, too.
"We’re basically social creatures, and overcoming substance abuse without friends and social networks is very difficult."
Dr. Teas explains how the rats were exposed to uncontrollable stress, and what we can learn from that. “[The isolation] is something they have no power to overcome. It actually rewires circuitry in the brain, making it more sensitive to substance abuse.” If you’re in a painful situation that you don’t have any control over, you become a lot more likely to seek control in other ways, such as substance abuse.
Making Connections (and Amends)
In an AMITA Health substance abuse treatment program, patients support each other as a part of a team with the support of addiction specialists. “Recovery does not work well when you do it in isolation,” says Dr. Teas. “Treatment programming is done in a group therapy model, where you’re trying to navigate recovery with individuals who are in the same boat as you.”
While a patient’s friends and family members undoubtedly love them and want them in their lives, substance abuse can cause serious damage to those relationships. “Usually when people are first seeking treatment for addiction, they’re strongly encouraged by the people in their lives and everybody is happy they are going in for treatment,” says Dr. Teas. “But as they progress in treatment and they start doing better, they have to start dealing with some of the resentments and anger they generated in others.” Making amends is an important part of the 12-step model used by Alcoholics Anonymous and programs like it.
Until the patient can repair those relationships, their support networks may be formed over the course of recovery. Group treatment programs show participants that they aren’t alone in their struggle, and that there is hope for them. Left to yourself, it’s very difficult to overcome substance abuse. With a group where you’ll be welcomed without judgement, it gets a lot easier.
The Secret to Defeating Substance Abuse
To Dr. Teas, the difference between successfully and unsuccessfully managing substance abuse comes down to two words: “Doing more.”
When you’re on the road back from addiction, it can be tempting to do just enough to start feeling better. You might think that you’re doing better than you really are. That’s why Dr. Teas has a simple aphorism for his patients: “If you do just as much as you need to do, you’ll relapse. If you do more than you need to do, you’ll be sober.”
Beating a drug addiction takes an enormous amount of willpower, and nothing saps willpower like thinking you don’t have it. That’s why one of the most important forms of support that the friends of an addict can provide is love in place of harsh judgment
"If you do just as much as you need to do, you'll relapse. If you do more than you need to do, you'll be sober."
“In America,” says Dr. Teas, “the more common belief is that addiction is a willpower problem. Friends and family members might say to a person, ‘Well, just control yourself. Quit being weak. Just stop drinking or doing drugs.’” However, that patient-blaming approach almost inevitably fails. That’s why it’s so important to remember that addiction is a mental illness. “If you have a friend who is drinking too much, you might say to them, ‘Hey, I really care about you and I see what’s happening, and I think you should see a professional.’”
One last word of wisdom from Dr. Teas about understanding substance abuse: “It’s an illness just like any other illness. You wouldn’t say to a person who has constipation, ‘just use more willpower and deal with it.’”
Original source can be found here.
Source: Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital