Insidious Associations

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. — Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a therapist, I’ve noticed that situations and their associations often lead people to construct powerful rationalizations. The ways in which an individual can compartmentalize consequential behavior provides strong evidence for the premise that patterns of interaction are deeply entrenched and sustained by subconscious justifications.

Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, has completed several comprehensive studies regarding the development and continuation of the craving response in addictive behavior. In addition, Hart has written a book entitled High Price that explores the author’s personal observations and experiences with social and economic disenfranchisement as an impetus for addiction. Hart examines contemporary scientific data while challenging the notion that neurobiological effects of drugs alone are the primary motivation for ongoing use. For example, if an individual uses drugs as a reliable source of escapism and transitory pleasure in lieu of unpleasant realities, a subsequent emotional attachment for justifying continued use becomes psychologically embedded. In the classic Pavlovian sense, a cue for drug use may be the daily reminder of one’s socioeconomic status and a feeling of helplessness regarding an ability to achieve mobility. Likewise, the deprivation of resources, a lack of personal meaning, and a reduction of human connectivity can innervate feelings of desperation and unrestrained behavior (think of a Skinner box with no alternative reward levers). Enduring complex social problems with minimal occasions for life enjoyment may lead to excessive attempts to compensate for loss and despair while sculpting the neurological responses in a way that promotes emotional reactivity rather than feelings of empowerment and well-being. Hart states, “The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats. The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”

Meaningful distractions, productive sublimation, and substitute diversions can offset the seductive nature of substance use. Subsequently, the perceived need for ephemeral anodynes becomes less consuming when viable options are accessible to the individual. However, if you deny people meaningful social engagement, occupational and recreational fulfillment, or opportunities to increase feelings of self-worth, they may soon feel hopeless and succumb to learned helplessness. Instead of thinking of drug addiction as a cause of societal dysfunction, the inverse analysis obligates us to concede that addiction is more likely the product of a dysfunctional society. While it’s true that addiction perpetuates passivity and can certainly result in dire interpersonal ramifications, efforts to diminish social inequality while legitimizing the significance of life-affirming alternatives reinforces the possibility for durable transformation.

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