A Good Night’s Sleep is the first step to resetting our brain

By | Addiction, Books, Mental Illness | No Comments

In Part One of this series, I minted a new term for the way our brain is destabilised by dopamine producing behaviours and stress.  Dopamine Deficit Syndrome (DDS) occurs when we repeatedly stimulate the reward or stress circuits. We develop a tolerance for dopamine which is a semi-permanent rewiring of our brain. It increases the amount of dopamine required to make us feel normal. We develop a tolerance for risk and reward.  Now something must be extra dangerous or extra rewarding or we will ignore it.  Now our normal levels of dopamine are not enough.  Not enough to reward us, not enough to scare us and not enough to keep our attention in general.  That rewired state pushes us into addiction, anxiety and depression and sleep is the first step on the pathway out.

You may not feel like you have an addiction, are under stress, are anxious or depressed, but if you persistently have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, there is a very good chance you are on that destructive pathway. Sleep, or rather the lack of it, is the canary in the coal mine for damage to our dopamine pathways. It is the very first sign of DDS.

Anxiety and depression are the two primary outcomes of DDS. They arise when the amount of dopamine we produce is not sufficient in comparison to the level our brain thinks it needs. And how much it thinks it needs is determined by how much dopamine stimulation we generally engage in.

We can directly stimulate dopamine using substances like sugar, nicotine, cocaine and methamphetamines or we can do it using software designed for that purpose such as social media, gaming and gambling apps. However we do it, the more we hit the dopamine button the more we need.

When we are sleep deprived our brain generates more dopamine, so a home grown ‘solution’ to DDS is to stay awake. Insomnia is an early warning sign of DDS. Our body attempts to fill the dopamine deficit by making more dopamine. Higher baseline levels of dopamine initially make us feel less depressed but will also make it very hard for us to sleep.

Our desire to sleep is driven by a hormone called melatonin. When it gets dark, we produce more meltonin and start to feel like sleeping.  Dopamine inhibits melatonin production and keeps us awake, no matter how tired we feel. This in turn produces more dopamine but it is a vicious cycle. Too much dopamine causes lack of sleep which causes too much dopamine.

This is why, somewhat paradoxically, sleep deprivation therapy is sometimes used to treat depression. About half of all depressed patients who miss one night’s sleep experience a rapid reduction in symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, the effect is very short-lived, with around 80% of those that benefit relapsing as soon as they get a good night’s sleep.

Dopamine can only keep us awake for so long. Eventually, we crash. and that just makes the problem worse because all the extra dopamine increased our adaptation to it and the level of our DDS. Given this, it is not surprising that there is a very strong association between depression and sleep disorders. A significant UK study found that 97% of people suffering from diagnosed depression also suffer at least one sleep disturbance symptom. Seven in ten suffered from diagnosable insomnia.

The majority believed their sleep problems started at the same time as their depression but major studies on sleep deprivation have shown that insomnia is a strong predictor of depression before there are enough other symptoms to make a diagnosis. Some researchers have even suggested that depression should not be the diagnosis where there is no sign of insomnia.

Sleep deprivation works as a short-term antidepressant because the increase in dopamine levels is enough to lift us out of the DDS trough that is depression. Drugs that increase dopamine, such as Ritalin, Levodopa or cocaine, have the same short-term effect. The downside to this quick relief is that, of course, the body responds by ratcheting up our need for dopamine, making depression even worse in the longer term. The real answer is that sleep, and not sleep deprivation, is part of the cure to the reward pathway failure caused by DDS.

The problem is that to sleep more we need to cure DDS and in order to cure DDS we need to sleep more. The answer to that conundrum lies in serotonin. Serotonin is the opposite to dopamine in the way it makes us feel. Dopamine makes us edgy and ready for reward. Seratonin is the reward.  Serotonin is always present in the background. It is in large part responsible for our overall mood, but when we achieve something, we get a spike in serotonin that suppresses the stimulating effect of the dopamine and makes us feel calm, happy and sleepy. We stop chasing and start enjoying. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good after sex, after a good meal or after achieving a goal. Bad things could be happening all around us but the serotonin surge will make us feel content. It is also required as a building block for the brain’s manufacture of melatonin.

We need to seek our behaviours which are inherently rewarding, not just dopamine-producing.

This gives us some insight into things we can do which combat addition. We need to seek our behaviours which are inherently rewarding, not just dopamine-producing. Artificial dopamine stimulants do not produce the serotonin hit that real life rewards do. To receive the serotonin hit we need to have real sex instead of porn, real socialisation instead of social media and real endorphin producing exercise instead of gaming.

The start of the cure to DDS is to sleep more. And the way to sleep more, is not to get our dopamine hits from simulations and drugs but from the real life activities they mimic.

 

 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Nice People are addicts too

By | Addiction, Books, Mental Illness | One Comment

Why Addiction should be called ‘Dopamine Deficit Syndrome’

Addiction is a loaded word. Calling someone an addict will definitely get you removed from their Christmas Card list.  We see addicts as dirty people, criminals, deviants or just plain sad.  We think they lack self-control. They hang out in dark alleys swapping cash for Molly. They lose money they don’t have at the track. They prostitute themselves for a hit.  They beat their wives. The next ‘high’ rules their lives. It is not a compliment, and it carries a lot of moral judgement baggage.

And yet at the same time we’ll often describe ourselves as addicts.  We’re addicted to our phone, or coffee or we’re gym junkies or chocoholics. But we don’t mean we’re real addicts.  We’re not meth heads or ice junkies. We’re not THAT type of addict. And yet the science says there is no discernible difference in the biochemistry between a chocoholic and a cocaine addict.

This is why we need a new name for addiction. We need a name that describes exactly what it is without all the stigma. We need the new name so we can understand how that biochemistry can affect anyone and, more importantly, what we can do about it.  I suggest Dopamine Deficit Syndrome.  Let me explain why.

We’ve all met people wearing a fragrance that could kill a cat at twenty paces, but we are barely able to smell it at all after being with them for a while. Olfactory adaptation or nose blindness is a temporary inability to detect an odour after prolonged exposure.  Evolutionary biologists suggest neural adaptations like this help us screen out constants in our environment so that we can more efficiently detect changes.  It is not life-prolonging if the toxic aftershave hides the smell of an approaching bear for example.

We can develop a similar ‘blindness’ for dopamine for a similar reason. Dopamine is the neurochemical which motivates us to run towards rewards and away from danger.  And just as with odours, we will develop blindness to it in highly rewarding or dangerous environments.  If we live in a war zone, we need to develop a blindness to dopamine so we can detect when a gunshot sounds near enough to be a threat.  Similarly, if every player wins a prize, we need a bigger reward to make us keep playing.

Our brain does this by shifting the goalposts.  It increases the amount of dopamine required to make us take action. We develop a tolerance for risk and reward.  We become risk and reward blind.  Now something must be extra dangerous or extra rewarding or we will ignore it.  Now our normal levels of dopamine are not enough.  Not enough to reward us, not enough to scare us and not enough to keep our attention in general.

Dopamine’s job is to keep us focused on the task at hand. Without it, our brain continuously jumps the rails. We need more dopamine all the time just to feel normal. We are suffering from Dopamine Deficit Syndrome (DDS).

Our body knows how to cure DDS. It remembers the things that produce dopamine (even if we don’t). It knows if we stay awake, dopamine will ramp up.  It knows if we are in pain, or hungry dopamine will increase. It also knows we can consume substances that stimulate dopamine directly, things like sugar, caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, opioids etc.  And it knows we can watch porn,  play computer games, scroll the socials or dating apps or gamble and dopamine will be forthcoming.

All of this makes us feel better, but none of it cures DDS, it just makes it worse. The more dopamine we are able to generate, the more ‘blind’ we become and the more intense our DDS becomes. It is like ‘curing’ nose-blindness by snorting Eu de Cat-killer.

DDS symptoms are pretty easy to spot.  Sufferers have trouble sleeping, are irritable, lack impulse control, are anxious, depressed and paranoid and are unable to focus except when a dopamine hit is on offer.  They will have no trouble with concentration when playing an online game or betting on the next race, but they will really struggle to focus on a maths problem or reading a book.

When I wrote about quitting sugar, people would tell me they don’t add sugar to anything, so they couldn’t have a problem. What they didn’t know was that we no longer need to add sugar.  It is in everything. We can eat 20 teaspoons just by having a bowl of Sultana Bran and a glass of juice.

The story is similar with dopamine. We no longer need to seek out people with dubious hygiene in dark alleys to get a dopamine hit, they are embedded in everything. They are there when we browse our socials, when we watch YouTube, when we play an online game, when we eat a muffin with our coffee, when we have a quiet one or three after work, when we place a quick online bet and when we stay up past our bedtime doing any of these things. Excess dopamine hits are now everywhere and every time we get one, our brain moves the goalposts of feeling normal just that bit further away.

The good news is DDS is more curable than just about any disease we know.  When you walk out of the room and rest your nose for a few minutes.  Your nose blindness vanishes. You will smell Feline Assassin like it was the first time. Your olfactory sense is reset.  Exactly the same thing happens with DDS. The catch is it takes 3 months rather than a few minutes, and during those 3 months your brain will be telling you 24 hours a day to get a dopamine hit.

This makes curing it easier said than done, but the first step to that cure is understanding we are not filthy addicts with character faults. We are being driven by biochemistry and marketed to by people who can make a buck out of knowing that.  Our best defence is skipping the guilt and stigma associated with the word ‘addiction’ and applying what we know about that biochemistry to ensure we make it to the other side of withdrawal.

 

Photo by Jessica Lynn Lewis from Pexels

Australia is developing a nasty addiction to ADHD drugs the WHO refuses to recommend

By | Addiction, Books, Education, Mental Illness | 3 Comments

In December 2018, the Australian Human Right’s Commission reported to the UN that “Australian is among the countries with the highest rate of ADHD diagnosis in the world for children 5-14 years, and the number of psychostimulant drugs prescriptions has increased dramatically.”  In the two short years since then, Australia has increased the prescription of these drugs by a 24 percent.

In 2020 the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) subsidised almost 1.5 million prescriptions for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) medication.  That is double what it was just 8 years ago and is ten times the number from 1997. We don’t have accurate current Australian statistics on ADHD but if the rate of growth in prescription drugs is any kind of guide, we have a very big problem, and it is growing at more than 10% a year.

ADHD is a neurological disorder defined by symptoms.  People with ADHD are inattentive,  impulsive, and in some cases, hyperactive.  The primary driver of those symptoms is an inability to focus.  In boys this often manifests as disruptive behaviour and in girls as inattentiveness.

Our ability to ‘focus’ is dependent on dopamine, a critical part of our reward system. It keeps us focused on chasing rewards and when there is danger, focuses us on avoiding it.  Even when rewards or danger are not in play, we keep our mind on the job with dopamine.

Like all mental illness, ADHD is likely attributable to an underlying propensity, but stress and addiction can significantly increase the likelihood of symptoms developing. The figures make it clear that we are creating disease. When we experience chronic stress due to uncertain housing, food insecurity or violence, for example we develop a tolerance to dopamine by increasing the baseline levels we need to focus. The same thing happens when we become addicted to things like sugar, online games, social media, porn, alcohol or other drugs.  When our brain is in that dopamine-adapted state, our dopamine levels are too low when we are not doing something addictive.

When dopamine levels are too low, we can’t focus.  Our mind feels like it is running too fast, and we struggle to hold a thought for more than a few seconds.  This is how addiction and stress leads directly to ADHD behaviour and it is why most people who are diagnosed with the condition are addicted or stressed or both. This rewired state also downgrades our impulse control. The net effect is that we have random and rapidly changing impulses and are more likely to act on them.

ADHD and classroom education mix about as well as oil and water.  Kids with ADHD are often compelled to move constantly, are easily distracted by noises or sights in or near the classroom, will frequently interrupt teachers and other students, struggle to translate learning into understanding and have trouble paying attention.  It is challenge for educators to remember that none of this behaviour is voluntary and not punish the child or demand that they be medicated.

The drugs dispensed at an increasingly frenetic rate to ADHD sufferers are dopamine stimulants. Just like any stimulant drug, they help us keep focus.  Their mechanism of action is similar to cocaine and amphetamines. They don’t do anything about the cause of the low dopamine state but, for as long as we take them, they can usually stimulate enough dopamine to stop our mind wandering off task. They can of course be highly addictive. This is why the World Health Organisation (WHO) has refused to add them to its list of effective and safe medicines. Yes, that’s right, the current ‘cure’ for lack of focus driven by addiction (or stress or both) it to give children addictive drugs which the WHO has refused to recommend.

As distressing as those numbers are, it’s worth remembering that ADHD medication prescriptions have doubled since that data was collected, so they are likely to be a significant underestimate.  Those same medication numbers tell us that just two decades ago ADHD was a tenth of the problem it is now. In other words, encountering a child with ADHD in the average classroom was a rare event.  The way the numbers are going, within 10 years it will be rare to encounter a child without ADHD.

We are on a fast track to having a generation of kids who are impossible to educate unless they are taking potentially addictive stimulants that predispose them to a life of addiction.  If you think that’s an exaggeration, take another look at the graph.  ADHD is a problem with a rocket and the current ‘solution’ is ignite the afterburner.  We need a plan that supports parents, reassures educators, and helps kids.  We need a plan that fixes the root causes, addiction and financial insecurity.  And we need that plan yesterday.

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

 

Leaked internal research shows Instagram knows how much it harms teens (and does nothing about it)

By | Addiction, Mental Illness, Teens | No Comments

We don’t let kids smoke, drink, gamble or take drugs, so why do we let them use Instagram?

At senate hearings last week, US Senator Edward J. Markey, said, “Facebook is just like Big Tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it early, all so Facebook can make money … Instagram is that first childhood cigarette, aimed to get teens hooked early ”.  The Senator was talking about internal research conducted by Facebook on its subsidiary Instagram over the last three years.  The studies had been leaked by a whistle-blower and  former Facebook employee and they came to some stunning conclusions.

Some of the research concludes “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” and “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”  Other internal documents described children aged 10-12 as a valuable ‘untapped audience’ and even suggested they could appeal to younger children by ‘exploring playdates as a growth lever’.

Another leaked internal study of teens who struggle with their mental health, found that 35 percent of UK teenage girls felt Instagram made things worse and 13 percent of UK teenage girls felt their suicidal thoughts started on Instagram.   When the researchers asked teens how Instagram harmed their mental health they cited, “the pressure to conform to social stereotypes,” “pressure to match the money and body shapes of influencers” and “the need for validation – views , likes and followers.”

Other research not funded by Instagram has shown similar things for at least the last five years, but this is the first time it has been clear the company has known this. All the while it has made public statements to the contrary.  It smells a lot like Big Tobacco’s, public denials in the eighties while it sat on a mountain of internal evidence of harm.  It is no wonder the Senator drew the parallel.

Social media like Instagram destroys teen mental health because it is addictive. It is not accidentally addictive.  It is very much on purpose.  Or as Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google puts it, “the largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and … we’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.”

The purpose of all this computing power is to get more minutes of your attention.  Attention is gold. It can be sold for billions to an army of eager advertisers.  Every extra minute of a child’s attention mined by those super computers is money in the bank. To do it, the programmers use everything we know about how our reward system works.

We like to be liked by others, so we’re constantly scanning our peers for signs that we’re liked. We’ll actively seek out things we think will mean we’re liked more, and we’ll avoid things that might mean we’re liked less. We call this peer pressure, and it drives us to ensure our behaviour is consistent with that of the others in our group.

At the biochemical level peer pressure is driven by a hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin is our super reward for bonding with others. When we think people like us, oxytocin is released and it, in turn,  stimulates dopamine release, ensuring we desire the thing producing the oxytocin response.  Every time we gain a follower or something we post to social media collects a like, comment or view, we get a little bump in oxytocin.

In real life, we might receive a compliment or a smile every now and then, but there is no equivalent for receiving hundreds of ‘likes’ for everything we do or say.  Social media is a high speed simulator of stimulating social interaction and just like other high speed computer simulations like gambling, gaming and porn, it is intoxicating and powerfully addictive.

The reward pathway in women is significantly more sensitive to oxytocin than that in men. This means women are significantly more sensitive to social cues than men, and find social interaction more rewarding than men do. Because of the low GABA levels in adolescents, teenage girls have this sensitivity dialled up to ‘maximum’, making them desperate for the approval of others and extraordinarily vulnerable to technologies that exploit that need.

The brain adapts to addiction by temporarily rewiring into a dopamine adapted state. It makes addiction harder to break and simultaneously makes us anxious, depressed and prone to suicidal thoughts.  The teens in the Instagram research felt worse after using the app for the same reason a drug addict feels worse when they are not high.  Addiction is a powerful driver of anxiety and depression.  Addictive behaviour is stress relieving behaviour for the anxiety that addiction creates. It is a highly destructive vicious circle.

The latest leaked research makes it clear how sinister the social media giants are. They have known all of this, have done for a long time and don’t care. As Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, said in 2017, “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.”

We don’t let children buy cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. We don’t let them gamble and they are not legally allowed to access pornography. Hell, we even have confectionary-free checkouts in supermarkets.  We don’t want our kids to be exploited for profit by merchants of addiction. Big Social Media has demonstrated that it is more than happy to addict kids for profit regardless of the consequences.  It’s time we recognised there is very little to distinguish them from Big Tobacco. It’s time we revoked their right to operate. And its time they paid the price for the massive damage they are doing.

 

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV from Pexels

Assaults have doubled to record levels since the start of the pandemic … and it’s just the start.

By | Addiction, covid-19, Mental Illness | No Comments

Queensland experienced the largest number of assaults ever in August 2021 according to data published by the Queensland Police. Last month there were almost 4,000 assaults in the State. This is double the number which occurred in August 2019.  Similarly there were 37% more breaches of domestic violence orders in August 2021 when compared with August 2019. Blowouts like this do not happen in crime statistics. A bad year is a 10% increase. Something very, very odd is happening and the science says that COVID could be the culprit.

Studies in animals and humans tell us our mental stability is driven by dopamine signalling. Too many dopamine hits too often will lead to mental illness as certainly as night follows day. We are most familiar with this when the thing delivering the hit is a stimulant drug like cocaine or meth.  But we can also get those dopamine hits by experiencing stress.  Just as dopamine motivates us to chase rewards, it is also used to make us respond to danger.  Same system, same neurochemical, same result. We end up in an on-edge state either anticipating reward or danger.  Both pleasure and pain deliver the same dopamine surge.

The strength of that hit is significantly accelerated by uncertainty. Continuous exposure to addictive substances delivered on an uncertain schedule pushes us into a state of anxiety and depression.  And in exactly the same way, continuous exposure to uncertain danger does the same.  If our housing is not certain.  If our food is not certain.  If our job is not secure.  If we could catch a deadly disease just by going to the shops.  If we’re trying to work from home and home-school. If we don’t know if we will be in lock-down tomorrow, we are in a constant state of on-edge preparedness for danger.

Our brain turns uncertainty-boosted dopamine hits into a semi-permanent change to the brain biochemistry that helps us cope with our high-dopamine environment. Unfortunately, that coping mechanism comes at a cost – our mental health.

Dopamine-adapted brains are anxious. They overreact, are irritable, have low impulse control, have weak memory and make poor decisions without care for consequences.  If we allow that mental state to go on indefinitely, we place ourselves and others at mortal risk from self-harm, domestic violence, or suicide.  It is meant to be a temporary adjustment, not a permanent state.

One of the most studied areas of impulsivity is domestic violence. A long line of studies have established that about two-thirds of recorded instances of domestic violence are impulsive. We would therefore expect that anything likely to raise the level of impulsivity, such as stress or addiction, would also raise the level of domestic violence. The data makes it clear that the two are very closely related.

A major US study of over 23,000 demographically representative households found that women in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods were more than twice as likely to be a victim of domestic violence when compared to advantaged neighbourhoods. Digging a little deeper, the researchers found that the rate of violence jumps from 4.7 per cent when the male is always employed to 7.5 per cent when he experiences one period of unemployment. If a man from a disadvantaged neighbourhood has continuous unstable employment, the rate jumps to 15.6 per cent.

The higher the level of financial uncertainty, the higher the level of domestic violence.

Similar research in Australia based on 13,375 households revealed similar correlations between stress and violence. The Australian study found that the risk of family violence was three to four times as high in households suffering financial stress, jumping on average from around 4 per cent to nearly 15 per cent. This was after controlling for age, parental status and drug dependency.

The dopamine tolerant state induced by chronic stress will drive someone to seek addictive substances. Accessing Cocaine, Nicotine and Booze, Porn, Social Media and Gambling are all stress relieving behaviours. But they all make things worse. They temporarily reduce anxiety quickly and effectively, but because they also deliver a dopamine hit, they ultimately make the dopamine adapted brain even worse. Alcohol is often the first port of call to cope with stress.

Commonwealth Bank card spending data tells us that Australians spent between 30 and 45% more on alcohol in 2021 than they did in the same months in 2019.

It provides a temporary solution, but it also significantly reduces inhibition and impulse control and gives people a sense of invincibility. A community infused with high levels of drunkenness will be one in which violence and crime occur at significantly higher levels.  And in turn the stress created by random acts of violence in the community will increase the likelihood of it occurring more often. It is a vicious cycle that rapidly accelerates, as clearly demonstrated in the stats from QLD police.

The really bad news from those stats is that those crimes are seasonal.  The worst months for assaults are December, January, and February.  August 2021 may have set a record, but it is likely to be broken very soon.

COVID has created a wave of uncertainty that affects almost all of us, almost all of the time.  For as long as that uncertainty continues, these crime statistics will rapidly spiral into territory none of us has ever experienced.  Governments must recognise this urgently and plan to provide the financial and social certainty we all desperately need.  Because if they don’t the society we think we know will tear itself apart in a stressed, addicted and impulsive rage.

 

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

China crushes the supply of online gaming ‘opium’ while Australia hands it out in schools

By | Addiction, Mental Illness | No Comments

China has just cut access to online gaming to a maximum of three hours a week. As far as the Chinese government is concerned, games are highly addictive ‘spiritual opium’ with devastating consequences for the mental health of an entire generation. Meanwhile Australian schools and universities are opening the equivalent of injecting rooms in their classrooms.

There is no doubt that gaming is addictive. The dopamine spikes created by the simulated danger in online games, cause addiction. Those dopamine ‘hits’ are just as addictive as the ones generated by chemical stimulants like opioids. And the consequences of that addiction are no less dire, with anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide featuring prominently on a very long list. The science is so clear that in mid 2018 the World Health Organisation (WHO) added gaming addiction to the list of diagnosable mental health conditions.

Shortly after the WHO declaration the China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC) said more than 30 per cent of Chinese children were suffering from the disorder. Within a year the Chinese government implemented severe restrictions on gaming. Children were only permitted 90 minutes of gaming per day plus three hours on holidays.  It didn’t work. The CINIC now estimates that gaming addiction among children in China is rampant, with around 60% of children affected.

The latest move tightens the screws further. Now under 18s in China cannot play online games at all from Monday to Thursday and are allowed to play only between 8pm and 9pm on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and public holidays. Another new requirement is that every player has to be registered with a real name and the games must provide links to online anti-addiction services. Face recognition software is also being deployed into games to ensure compliance.

Data from CINIC showed China’s gaming industry produced revenue of US$43 billion in 2020, up 21 percent from the previous year.  An article published by the Chinese state owned newsagency said “No industry, no sport, can be allowed to develop in a way that will destroy a generation.” According to Tong Lihua, director of the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center, the latest move is a response to the unchecked profit-seeking nature of a gaming industry that depends on the addiction of children.

China knows a thing or two about being the victim of addiction profiteering. In the late 18th century, the British East India Company solved a wee cash flow problem by shipping tonnes of Indian grown opium into southern China, where the habit of consuming it was taken up with gusto. By 1836, up to twelve million Chinese were opium addicts. When the Chinese government banned its use and destroyed the stockpiles of British merchants in 1839, the British Navy used their overwhelming military might to force the Chinese to become good customers of the British opium trade once again.

It wasn’t until Mao brutally eliminated the trade in the 1950s that China got its opium addiction under control. He knew that the primary cost of addiction was time. Time spent feeding the addiction was time not spent producing. It was a productivity cost that post-war China could not afford. Mao put ten million addicts in compulsory treatment, executed the dealers and ploughed over opium farms.

Today in Australia, we are now ploughing the over the ‘spiritual opium’ farms that are online gaming. We are fertilizing them.  Our high schools and universities are signing up to eSports leagues. To participate, a school establishes “teams” of competitive gamers who “train” for hours each week after school and compete in the online leagues. The players pay a nominal fee to be part of the season, just like a real sport but about a third of the cost.

The games are free to play and can be played all the time regardless of being in a “team”, so I suspect most of the players get in a lot more “training” than the hour or two they do at school. And probably use the need to “train” as an excuse for access to their devices at home.

The schools do it because it seems like sport, but is much cheaper to run, keeps the kids busy and there are great prizes for the schools and the students on offer. But they might as well be opening lunchtime pubs in their canteens. Addicting their students to gaming is no better than addicting them to booze and it certainly isn’t sport.

According to Roy Morgan data from December 2020, 5.5 million Aussies played video games in the past three months. And if there is one thing gamers like doing almost as much as playing, it’s watching people who are better than them play.  The audiences for eSports eclipse the audiences for real sports by extraordinary margins.  And where there is an eager audience, there’s money to be made.

PwC’s latest Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook says that total interactive gaming and esports revenues rose by 7.2% in 2020 to $3.41 billion in Australia, a number expected to grow by at least a quarter of a billion dollars a year through to 2025.  This is why, AFL clubs, with a capped local audience for their core game and desperate desire for growth, have driven the adoption of eSports in schools in the last five years.

There is a lot of money to be made from getting and keeping Australian kids addicted to gaming.  And the best bit, from the industry’s point of view is the collateral damage, the mental health tidal wave that follows the wave of addiction, is not their problem. New gamers are born every minute and schools are willing accomplices in feeding the production line.

These games are the very best, the most addictive, the most evolved, the gaming industry has to offer. Their purpose is to addict young minds, so that billions can be drained from their bank accounts and billions more can be drained from the accounts of sponsors who want access to the players and their fans. And our schools have signed up as part of the gaming industry sales force.

We don’t tolerate commercialisation of our schools. There are no Macca’s school canteens. There are no school footy teams with brewery sponsors.  So why on earth are we allowing companies whose entire purpose is to addict young minds open up shop in our schools?

eSport is addictive gaming, pure and simple, so don’t let your school fall for the marketing BS designed to turn your kids into a product for sale to the highest bidder.

China is not quite at the point of executing dealers and putting millions of kids into rehab centres, but their recent experience with mass addiction has meant they are quick to recognise the signs of a productivity and mental health catastrophe.  We would be wise not to ignore what they are doing and at the very least stop our schools and universities fanning the flames of the next profit driven addiction pandemic.

 

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

How simple things done well can help reset our brain

By | Addiction, Mental Illness | No Comments

Dopamine is our go-juice. It motivates us to chase reward and to run from danger. Without it, we might notice the bar of chocolate but would be unable to muster the energy to pick it up.  We might see the car running the red light but lack the will to move out of the way.

Luckily, we come fitted out with a perfectly operational dopamine system. Arranging motivation for chasing rewarding things like food or sex or running from danger is not a problem.  If, however, we overstimulate dopamine we can change the way our brain is wired.  If we obtain rewards or encounter stressful situations too frequently our brain adapts by making us less sensitive to both risk and reward. This makes us simultaneously seek bigger rewards – something we call addiction – and overestimate risk – something we call anxiety.

We can overstimulate dopamine using chemicals, like cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, and sugar. Or we can do it using software like porn, social media and dating apps, that run high frequency simulations of rewarding experiences.

Chronic stress such as financial, job, or housing insecurity or health pandemics and lockdowns will achieve the same result.  And we can get there using software that simulates stress, like gambling and games.

Once our brain is rewired by reward or stress, we are at very high risk of developing serious addictions and mental illness, not to mention lacking impulse control and being more prone to violence.  Fortunately, there is a way to reset our brains.

Breaking an Addiction

Obviously the first step is to remove whatever it is that is overstimulating dopamine. For rewarding behaviours and substances, it means admitting we have a problem and consciously stopping. That is not easy. If it were they would not be addictive.

The research tells us that most of us will struggle to get past this hurdle the first time we try. But there is nothing to be lost in stopping again, and again, and again if necessary.  Failing to quit is not a character defect, it is biochemistry and every time we abstain for even a short time, we are making the mountain a little bit easier to climb the next time.

Something that the science says will significantly improve our odds of success is finding other people who are also quitting and meeting them weekly to talk about how we are going. It keeps us and them honest and motivated.  Every day away from addiction makes it much more likely we will break it.

Removing Stress

If the source of the overstimulation is stress, then we must work to reduce stress.  For some sources that is achieved introducing routine.  The less decisions we must make the less uncertainty we encounter and the less we engage the mechanism that creates decision anxiety.

There are many uncertain parts of our life over which we have no control.  We cannot control whether the government puts us in to a lockdown that endangers our job.  We cannot control whether our landlord will delay collection of the rent. But we can control smaller things. If for example you always know what you will have for dinner on Monday night, you have removed whole chains of decisions – when to shop, how to shop, how to pay for it and how to cook – from your life. It is by definition, boring. But routine and boredom is what we are aiming for when we seek to remove uncertainty from our lives.

Using a Dopamine patch

We know that for some people it is easier to break an addiction if something which delivers a lower dopamine hit is administered and then the dose lowered slowly over time.  This is the theory behind nicotine patches.  Deliver the nicotine/dopamine hit without the cigarette and lower the dose over time. That notion of low dose dopamine hits will help to rewire the brain’s addictive and stressed state.

The body sometimes attempts this sort of self-help solution on its own. Pain, hunger and lack of sleep all produce dopamine hits. We see those in real-life, in the form of self-harm, intentional starvation and insomnia. The body will apply those band-aids itself if we don’t get in front of the problem.

We can do this in many other ways which don’t need drugs, pain or exhaustion. We know that anything that requires us to focus delivers a dopamine hit.  So taking up a hobby, or a sport or learning to play an instrument or even meditating will all work as long as you can remain focused and live in the moment while you are doing it.

The key is focus.  To focus, our brain needs to increase dopamine levels. This becomes a ‘nicotine patch’ for bringing us down from the endless chase for hits from addictive behaviours or substance while simultaneously making those same hits from stress and uncertainty more tolerable. Haven’t you always wanted to learn the piano?

 

Photo by Max Nikhil Thimmayya from Pexels

Why COVID is turning us all into addicts

By | Addiction, Mental Illness | No Comments

Pre-covid, one in ten UK adults reported current symptoms of anxiety or depression.  The number was similar in Australia and the US.  By June 2020, the UK number had risen to one in five.  By Christmas in the US 42% of all US adults were reporting the symptoms.  There is no reason to believe Australia’s numbers will be any different when they are eventually published. The stress of covid and the lockdowns associated with it are driving mental illness to levels we have never measured or experienced before.

We also are starting to see similar increases in addiction and violent crime.  A third of households now report drinking daily to cope with anxiety and one in five report buying more alcohol than usual. The number of Australians gambling four or more times a week increased by 40% during 2020.  And according to crime data, assaults increased by 30% and domestic violence increased by 45%.

All of this is united by a single simple explanation that is based on the way our brain adapts to stress. The bad news is that this stress adaptation creates a self-perpetuating cycle that leads inevitably to addiction and mental illness. The good news is that we know this – and can stop it if we act quickly.

I live under a flight path.  Visitors often remark about aircraft noise which I stopped noticing long ago. They live in quiet streets where a jet flying over at a thousand feet would stand out like canine gonads. But I have ‘backgrounded’ it because it happens to me every 10 minutes. That ability to not notice things which are part of our normal environment is an important survival mechanic. We need to be able to do that so that when something unusual happens we do notice it amongst the noise.

We don’t just do this for sounds.  We do it for smell, colour, temperature, and pain to name just a few others. Critically we also do it for danger. If we live in a war zone, a stressful event like nearby gunfire will bother us a lot less than if we live in (say) Adelaide.  In the war zone we would be adapted to the background of frequent gunfire so that we would react only to the noises which put us in real, imminent danger.

This response helps us cope with the ever-present risk so we can still function.  If we responded to constant risk the way we respond to a once in a lifetime mortal threat, we’d be permanently frozen in fear.  Our biochemistry changes the calculation of risk so we can keep moving forward even in the most hair-raising circumstances.

We do the same thing for rewarding behaviour.  If rewards are rare, we keep a close eye out for them, but if we have unlimited access to reward, we get bored.  We need more and more stimulation to manage the same level of desire.  We create a new baseline for ‘normal’ levels of pleasure. Our brains background the good stuff just as efficiently as they do for the bad stuff.  This is not particularly surprising because we use the same biochemistry for both.

The trap is of course that since both pleasure and pain trigger the same biochemical adaptation, they act as gateways to each other.  People experiencing high levels of danger seek extraordinary levels of pleasure.  And people experiencing high levels of pleasure accept significantly greater levels of danger.

But there is a bigger price to pay than merely seeking pleasure and danger. Because our brains have moved the goalposts on what is normal, we will overestimate the potential reward on offer – we call this addiction – and do the same for potential risk – we call this anxiety.

This is why, in times of chronic disease uncertainty, chronic housing insecurity and chronic job insecurity, we are seeing rates of addiction and mental illness skyrocket.

Worse, the adaptation to stress puts our brain in a state of impaired impulse control.  We are more irritable, less able to make rational decisions and generally angrier and more impulsive. We might feel like punching the driver that just cut us off at the best of times, but when we are in this state we are much more likely to act on it. There is little wonder then that is exactly what we are seeing play out because of the stress associated with COVID and the government responses to it.

All hope is not lost, however. We can reset the brain wiring that holds us in a state of anxiety, addiction, and dangerous lack of self-control.   It is not easy, but it is possible to reset our tolerance levels for danger and reward and return us to non-addicted, non-anxious equilibrium.  Exactly how that is done is the subject of part two of this series.

 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels