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Project Recovery: Dr. Matt Woolley explains the science of addiction

Dr. Matt Woolley and Casey Scott, the hosts of Project Recovery. (Photo: KSL Newsradio)

Why do some people battle addiction when others don’t? What makes someone more prone to addiction than someone else?

The answer may lie in science.

On the latest episode of Project Recovery, hosts Casey Scott and Dr. Matt Woolley discuss how can you know if your behavior means you have an addiction.

People can be trapped in an addictive cycle, Dr. Woolley says, but not with things that are easily recognized as addictive.

Casey Scott says we as a society draw a line between types of addictions. If it is illegal, he says, it is seen as being bad. If you can buy it at the supermarket, then it is seen as good, Scott says.

The science of addiction

Dr. Woolley says that in the field of mental health, addictions are brain disorders.

“We are talking about a brain mechanism that’s involved in addiction. And sometimes that is referred to as a reward pathway,” Woolley says.

Basically, he says, what’s happening is something is triggering the neurochemical called dopamine. There are other neurochemicals involved too, “and that pathway, what it does is it creates this reward loop,” he says.

The human brain is designed to reward you for doing the things that keep the body alive, adaptive, and healthy, Woolley says.

Dopamine is released when the good action is performed, he says, wiring the brain to want to repeat the action to elicit the release of more dopamine.

The cycle of addiction

Behaviors become habitual over time due to this cycle.

Habitual behavior as an adult is due to reinforced behavior throughout a person’s life, reinforced by positive responses.

You anticipate an action will make you feel good, so you do it, Woolley says.

In an addiction cycle, a person begins to binge and the dopamine engages.

Then, the brain gets used to a certain amount of dopamine. This tolerance means the addictive substance needs to be increased to get the same feeling, he says.

Overcoming the body

Dr. Woolley says that when a person has an urge to give into an addiction or have a panic attack they have physical tension in the body and an increased heart rate.

Woolley says that calming the body down by breathing, meditating, stretching, and other activities can help a person work through until the body calms down.

“Give it time,” he says. “Nothing cures anxiety quite as well as a good plan.”

Introduction to behavioral addictions – or – impulse control PART ONE

Introduction to behavioral addictions – or – impulse control PART TWO

Resources for those suffering from addiction

Download Project Recovery Podcast

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