Have you ever been around a couple in their honeymoon phase? The two are inseparable; you can find them constantly hanging out together, thinking about each other, talking about each other, and feeling incomplete when they aren’t in each other’s company. Being in love is a universal experience, yet the characteristics associated with it are eerily similar to that of addiction. Someone with a drug addiction has an intense preoccupation with a drug that makes them feel euphoric and is susceptible to withdrawal when they don’t have access to it. Similarly, someone who is in love may feel “butterflies” in their stomach from the sight or even the thought of their significant other. Furthermore, they might express sentiments like “he’s always on my mind” or “I can’t live without her.”
The initially positive state of being love-struck can morph into distressing emotions over time. In some instances, one can become so dependent on their partner for happiness and stability that their world shatters when they are no longer a part of it. When someone faces heartbreak and loses out on the contact they once had with their significant other, they may experience sleep problems, changes in their appetite, mood swings, and even depression. Possible drug withdrawal symptoms include depression, anxiety, insomnia or hypersomnia, loss or increase in appetite, and irritability.
Substance abuse relapse is similar to the relapse in romantic feelings that is common post-break-up. In the same way that cravings arise from simply viewing cues associated with a drug (such as a syringe or the room where one frequently used the addictive substance), a longing for one’s ex can be triggered by shuffling through old photos and gifts, seeing mutual friends, and walking past the spot where they had their first date. Even if the relationship didn’t end on good terms, they may still miss the other person immensely. These feelings may even lead someone to partake in toxic behaviors like stalking their ex. Similarly, drug-addicted individuals are aware of the negative consequences of their drug use, yet continue to crave the intoxicating effects that drew them to the drug in the first place. In addition, both love and drug addiction can cause people to have a diminished interest in everyday activities like work, school, and even eating.
Researchers have scanned the brains of individuals who are deeply in love and found that parallels really do exist between romantic attraction and drug addiction. Both phenomena activate the reward system of our brains. Within this circuit of neurons, dopamine levels shoot up when we engage in activities that are pleasurable to us. When we are attracted to someone, high levels of dopamine are released in the brain, causing us to want to spend every minute of the day with our love interest. This reward system fires intensely even when you see photographs of them, compared to a neutral stimulus like an acquaintance from high school.
Although falling in love is not a pathological behavior, the science of love can actually give us insight into potential treatments for a condition as debilitating as drug addiction. Aside from dopamine, the hormone oxytocin, famously known as the “love hormone,” plays an important role in both romantic attraction and drug addiction. Oxytocin is released from social bonding, whether it be with a friend, family member, or significant other. The release of this hormone promotes attachment among people. With repeated drug use, on the other hand, oxytocin actually becomes depleted. This low level of oxytocin is correlated with increased stress, feelings of loneliness, and greater risk for depression. Stress is also associated with higher levels of drug relapse. Researchers propose the administering of an oxytocin-based treatment, in the form of a nasal spray, for individuals with drug addictions.
While love can be compared to a drug at the start of a relationship, as time goes on, it starts to lose its addictive properties. Later stages of romantic attraction are characterized more by feelings of calmness and stability rather than infatuation. This reduction in the intensity of feelings usually signifies that the honeymoon phase is over. Though some couples don’t get past the honeymoon phase, many will develop commitment in their relationship, in which a steady dose of attention from one’s partner is enough to keep the bond between them strong. In later stages of addiction, however, the consequences of drug abuse only become more negative. Tolerance is continually built up to the point that no amount of the substance will completely satiate them. It’s like being stuck in the honeymoon phase forever.
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