Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sober Day #68: Stress and Thinking just wrote a great post on how to get started with sobriety.  In it she mentions a Time mag cover story in 2007 on How We Get Addicted.  I read this with great interest!

From this story:

"Another fundamental target for addiction treatments is the stress network...stress can increase the desire for drugs."

"The part of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in  deliberate cognition is shut down by stress. " (Carrie says:  this is part of the fight or flight response).  "It's supposed to be, but it's even more so in substance abusers."

"A less responsive frontal cortex sets up addicts to be more impulsive as well".  (Carrie says:  impulsivity includes accepting and consuming alcohol or drugs without fully considering the consequences).

And another piece of my personal puzzle fell into place.

I remembered reading past stories about how success can set people up for failure.  What these studies showed was how stress can set one up for failure to apply logical thinking to situations.

Here's how it works.  Give a big group of students all the same test.  Regardless of performance, tell half that they did really well, but not outstanding.  Tell the other half that they did OK, but might do better another time.  (Remember there was no real difference in performance between the groups; the students were just told that there were).

Then offer both groups a chance to take a similar test, and to use the second score instead of the first. Many more in the 'OK' group chose to take the second test than did those in the 'Really Well' group.  It could be, of course, that the 'Really Well' group decided they were content with a 'good' score, and didn't need to stretch for 'fabulous'.  But in many, it was a fear that they would not do as well on the second exam.  Succeeding the first time made them afraid to tackle the task again.

How does this relate to the Time magazine piece?  Any test is, for most people, a stress.  And in this situation, the prefrontal cortex (Carrie:  this bit is all my connections and conclusions, not part of either article), the deliberate cognition part, begins to respond to stress by shutting down.  This shutting down keeps the 'really well' students from logically concluding that by taking the test once, they are now familiar with the test type and general content, and are likely to do better on a second test.

There are many parallel challenging or stress-inducing situations in each of our lives daily:  the store is out of the one ingredient we need for our special recipe, the washing machine breaks down, one of our kids is behaving badly, etc.   What if we retreat from dealing with these situations logically because stress has shut down our logical thinking? As the Time article says "(The shutdown of prefrontal cognition by stress) is supposed to be, but it's even more so in substance abusers."-  which would make those of us who turn/turned to alcohol for stress relief even more prone to this impulsivity and avoidance of rational considerations.

Here's a very crisp situation where I encountered this in my life.  I've mentioned before the website Lumosity, with brain-training-type games which give short time limits to complete.  On each visit, it sums up your performance with respect to you age peer group.  On my first few visits I did very well, with nice ego-stroking scores.  Then over the next weeks, I kept finding more reasons not to visit.

I finally realized I had some underlying fear of not doing as well on future games as I already had, and seeing my score sink.  "Really, Carrie!", I said to myself.  "A silly computer game is not so stressful that you have to avoid it for fear of your performance!".

After contemplation, I decided that Lumosity was an ideal training ground for me, a limited-risk stress-desensitization opportunity.  An so I have been doing it daily, whether I felt like it or not.  Yes, there is a general upward trend to my scores- but that isn't the point.

The point is:  Lumosity is a situation where I am able to feel stress and practice not shutting down, not shifting my prefrontal lobe into a Fight or Flight response.   And what I can handle here will slowly but surely be translating into my daily life, when a car unexpectedly cuts in front of me, or when the house is on fire, or when someone offers me a lovely glass of wine.  By exercising my ability to keep rational thinking (cognition) present in the face of stress, I am increasing my chances of long-term successful sobriety.

I love it when I find these connections and Aha! moments!!

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I'd love to hear about your journey, and hear your take on my journey. Comments are very welcome!!