The Psychology behind Addiction

Psychology, in simple words, is a science devoted to understanding human behavior. The main concern of psychologists is to improve the quality of people’s lives and their life satisfaction. Those behaviors that promote people’s well-being and life satisfaction are termed adaptive behaviors by psychologists while behaviors that serve to limit people’s functioning and diminish life satisfaction are termed maladaptive behaviors. Addiction is one such harmful maladaptive behavior that adversely affects one’s quality of life. To understand why people engage in this unhealthy behavior, it is essential to explore the psychological models that elucidate the possible causes of addiction.

According to psychologists, the first cause of addiction may be “psychopathology.” An individual may engage in harmful behaviors like addiction because of an abnormality, or “psychopathology” that manifests itself as mental illness. Secondly, the environment of an individual might be instrumental in fostering an individual’s unhealthy habit. Thirdly, an individual’s thoughts and beliefs create feelings that in turn determine his or her behavior. The more someone’s thoughts and feelings are unrealistic or dysfunctional, the more his or her behavior will be affected in that way.

The psychopathological model considers mental disorders as the cause of addiction. These disorders might comprise mood disturbances, cognitive difficulties, and other mental illnesses. In fact, addiction and other mental health disorders commonly occur together (called co-morbidity).

Addictive personality is another concept related to psychopathology. Certain personality traits might be the underlying factors in all addictive disorders. These may include the denial of apparent problems and problems with impulse and emotion regulation. Although there is a dearth of sufficient evidence suggesting an “addictive personality” per se, addiction does most frequently co-occur with a class of disorders called ‘personality disorders.’

Psychotherapy, which might include restructuring the personality and/or improving a person’s cognitive and emotional functioning, can, however, help identify and resolve underlying psychological disorders which play a significant role in causing addiction.

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The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect refers to the phenomenon in which a person’s performance is enhanced when greater expectation is placed on him.  The phenomenon is mostly seen in children, students or employees. It is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby an individual behaves the way others expect him or her to and thereby making the prediction to become true. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore F. Jacobson conducted the famous experiment on this phenomenon and published it in a book entitled Pygmalion in the Classroom (1986). In the experiment, experimenters conducted standard IQ test on children of an elementary school at the beginning of an academic year, and selected 20 per cent (about five children per class) at random, and told their teachers that the tests suggested that these children were potential academic ‘spurters’ who could be expected to show unusual intellectual gains in the year ahead. When the children were retested at the end of academic year, the ‘spurters’ showed massive IQ gains relative to the other children, especially in the first and second grades (6-7-year-old children). These gains were presumably due to subtle effects of the teachers’ expectations on the way they handled the children.

Researchers Explain Neurophysiological Link Between Breathing and Attention

Meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, have long been known to improve our ability to concentrate. A recent study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.

Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have several known cognitive benefits, such as increased ability to focus, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased mind wandering and emotional reactivity, along with many others. However, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested till date.

The study has been published in a paper entitled “Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama” in the journal Psychophysiology. The research findings has revealed for the first time that breathing which is a key component of meditation and mindfulness practices directly influences the levels of a natural chemical messenger called noradrenaline in the brain.

Noradrenaline is released when we are challenged, curious, worked up, focused or emotionally aroused. If it is produced at optimum levels, it helps the brain grow new connections. In other words, the way we breathe, directly impacts the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.

The study findings revealed that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronization between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus. The authors of the study believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilize attention and boost brain health.

The lead author of the study, Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, explicated: “Yoga practitioners have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we cannot focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we cannot focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”

The study has demonstrated that as we breathe in, locus coeruleus activity increases slightly, and as we breathe out, it decreases. In simple words, this means that our attention is affected by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. By concentrating on and regulating our breathing, it is possible to optimize our attention level and similarly, by focusing on our attention level, our breathing becomes more synchronized.

The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for individuals with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.

Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: “Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath and regulating it in precise ways—a practice known as pranayama—changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realized. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind.”

According to Robertson, these findings have noteworthy implications for research into brain aging. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. This research offers one possible reason for this—by regulating our breath we can control noradrenaline, which in the right amount would help the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost their brain health using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.

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Foreign Accent Syndrome

Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a medical condition as a result of which the patient suddenly develops such speech patterns that he or she is perceived to speak with a “foreign” accent without having acquired it in the perceived accent’s place of origin. FAS is most often caused by a stroke or traumatic brain injury. It may also be caused by migraines, multiple sclerosis, or developmental problems though in some cases no clear cause can be identified. This is a rare syndrome and therefore, it takes a multidisciplinary team of experts including neurologists, radiologists, neuropsychologists, clinical psychologist, and speech-language pathologists to evaluate and diagnose the syndrome.

The syndrome has been documented in cases across the world including accent changes from British English to French, American-English to British English, Spanish to Hungarian, and Japanese to Korean.

The speech changes related to FAS are characterized by fairly predictable errors; “uh” inserted into words; unusual prosody, including equal and excess stress (especially in multi-syllabic words); voicing errors (i.e., bike for pike); consonant substitution, deletion, or distortion; vowel distortions, prolongations, substitutions (i.e. “yeah” pronounced as “yah”); trouble with consonant clusters.

Effective Strategies to Overcome Panic Attacks

Panic attack refers to sudden or unexpected onset of fear or terror that often seems to come out of the blue.  The episodes of these attacks can occur anytime and anywhere. The panic attacks are often emotionally overwhelming and are accompanied by physical symptoms. The person experiencing them may feel that he or she is having a heart attack or is going crazy and is often concerned about having another attack or about the consequences of having such attack. Another characteristic of panic attack is that these episodes occur in situations where they are least expected like during sleep or during relaxation and often last for not more than thirty minutes. However, in some instances, panic attack can be situationally predisposed, occurring only in certain situations such as being in a crowd or while driving. If left untreated panic attacks can develop into panic disorder and other difficulties and can become quite disabling. If you have experienced one or two such episodes without any further episode or complications in the past month, chances are that you are not suffering from panic disorder, and there’s nothing to worry. However, if you have been repeatedly experiencing such episodes along with fear of having another attack combined with major behavioral changes, for at least a month, then you might be suffering from panic disorder or at the risk of developing panic disorder.

Symptoms of panic attack include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Depersonalization (a feeling of being detached from one’s body) or derealization (a feeling that external world is strange or unreal)
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Fear of “going crazy,” or of “losing control”
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Choking feeling

Here are some effective strategies to handle panic attacks:

Breathing exercise: Panic attacks can often cause rapid breathing and this hyperventilation can actually worsen the symptoms. Hyperventilation leads to light-headedness, dizziness, palpitation, tingling sensation in feet and hands, and breathlessness, which can actually make the experience more overwhelming and terrifying. Engaging in breathing exercises, however, can really help you ease yourself and control the related symptoms. Engaging in diaphragmatic breathing can actually help calm yourself as you start to experience the symptoms. Close your eyes and slowly inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. You can count to five as you breathe in and out. Try to concentrate on your breathing.

Avoid alcohol, smoke, and caffeine: Eat a healthy balanced diet and avoid consuming caffeine, alcohol, and smoking as these have been shown to make the symptoms worse.  Furthermore, avoid medicines that contain stimulants.

Relaxation techniques: Engage in relaxation techniques like progressive muscular relaxation, yoga, and meditation. Make them a part of your daily routine as these activities tend to calm mind and body, and help keep anxiety symptoms in check while inducing feelings of happiness in general.

Exercise: Exercise has been shown to release feel-good hormones and hence, works as a natural anxiety buster. You can engage in walking, running, or simple aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes daily. Even dancing for 30 minutes can help relieve anxiety symptoms.

Sleep: Lack of proper sleep can also worsen the symptoms of panic attack, so try to get seven to eight hour sleep daily. But there’s another side to it also—symptoms of panic attacks or fear of getting another panic attack can actually damage your quality of sleep.

Learn mindfulness: Mindfulness can help your control the symptoms of panic attack. Depersonalization and derealization are some of the symptoms of panic attacks that can be quite distressing. Mindfulness can help you stay in touch with the reality and present. Concentrate on the physical sensations, like texture of clothes on your body and your feet touching the ground etc. These can help you stay in your present reality.

Concentrate on the objects: As your experience symptoms of panic attack, try to focus your mind on some object that is in your sight.  Try to observe all the details of the object. This can help you distract your mind. As you concentrate you may feel the symptoms are settling.

Acknowledge: Since most of the symptoms of panic attack are often physical and the person experiencing them can feel that he or she is having a heart attack or is about to die, it is important to first and foremost acknowledge that you are having a panic attack. It is important to rule out any medical condition, and once that is done, you should educate yourself about panic attacks. Learn about the symptoms and find out any cues that act as a trigger. This can help you manage your condition more effectively. You might experience that the symptoms are not as overwhelming as they used to be. Once you acknowledge that you are having a panic attack you will be able to calm yourself more quickly and effectively.