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What causes addictive behaviours? Neuropsychologist gives insights on stress, and an antidote
by Global Good News staff writer
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4 December 2012
At a conference on Stress, Meditation, Addictions, and Self-Recovery, Dr William Stixrud spoke about certain vulnerabilities in the brain that indicate a tendency toward addiction. He focused on stress and its key role in addictive behaviours.
Dr Stixrud is adjunct faculty at Children's National Medical Center and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences, and Pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine in the USA. His expertise is in working with children and teenagers who have emotional, learning, and neurological problems.
He talked about what makes someone become an addict. He said, 'A lot of people use chemicals, smoke cigarettes, eat food, play video games, or gamble and they don't become addicts, which would suggest that there is some vulnerability in the brains of people who become addicted.'
So what is it that encourages a person to become addicted? Dr Stixrud said the answer is stress.
'If you look at the risk factors that make people at risk for becoming addicted, they all have to do with the way that you regulate stress—how adaptively you can deal with challenge and stress in your life.'
One predictor of the ability to deal with stress is the presence of prenatal stress.
'Forty per cent of the cortisol in a mother's bloodstream goes across the placenta into the baby's bloodstream,' said Dr Stixrud. 'So highly stressful pregnancies tend to affect how the baby's stress response develops.'
Stress during pregnancy often leads to poor stress regulation.
'The stress response becomes more sensitive and more reactive. Highly stressful pregnancies are more likely to produce kids who have ADHD or behavioural dysregulation. One study a few years ago found that 26 per cent of the ADHD symptoms at age seven were accounted for by prenatal stress.'
Summarizing his presentation so far, Dr Stixrud said:
'If you don't get the right kind of loving care in infancy, it affects the development of the stress response in a way that makes people more vulnerable to having the kind of problems that lead [to becoming] addicts. There is a strong correlation between stress during childhood and adolescence and later addiction.'
However, Dr Stixrud went on to describe how techniques which combat stress, in particular the Transcendental Meditation technique, have been shown to reduce addictive tendencies.
See previous articles in this series:
∙ Using Transcendental Meditation to combat ADHD and addiction in young people: Dr William Stixrud
∙ Preventing addiction in vulnerable adolescents: Conference explores role of Transcendental Meditation
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