Tuesday, October 19

Drink, eat, play: addicted by the pandemic

EIt is undeniable that the restrictions imposed against the coronavirus have dramatically changed the lifestyles of most of us. No one would doubt that the stress of uncertainty, prohibitions, and confinement makes us more likely to seek relief in a thousand ways to distract us. We are always, in Ovid’s words, on the hunt for what is forbidden to us and we desire what is denied us. There is a thread that threads stress and prohibition with addictive behaviors, such as video games, pornography, drugs and alcohol, outrageous shopping or comfort food, which are just a few. The important thing is that we can prevent them from turning into addiction, by limiting our access to what triggers them.

In the face of draconian changes in daily habits, the voltage between the pole of our desire and the pole of the law has increased — even touching a doorknob is unsettling. Edgar Allan Poe highlights this in his story The black cat: Don’t we have in us a perpetual inclination, despite the excellence of our judgment, to violate what the law is, simply because we understand that it is the law? We could suppose that Poe refers not so much to legal law as to that which defines social norms, that which governs order among human beings. That which, by differentiating what is permitted from what is forbidden, gives us entry to the symbolic universe, in which it is possible to substitute the absence of the good that is desired, or what is prohibited, by other experiences. The Law with a capital letter, which, as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss points out, imposes limits on desire, but at the same time intensifies it by establishing the prohibition, is the one that for the moment enters the game.

Plainly, the pandemic has “desire trapped by the tail” —the title of the play written by Picasso, in the middle of the war, sharply manifests the affections of the case. Desire or greed which, according to the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, is our very essence. Desire in the singular, as psychoanalysis thinks, which is the unconscious desire, which makes us human. Freud describes it as the longing for the lost object, the lost paradise — an ideal state of absolute happiness that, in fact, never existed as such. However, it is precisely the occurrence that he remains unsatisfied that keeps him alive. If we could satisfy him, we would stop desiring.

The pursuit of enjoyment is the way we pursue it. Our brain identifies and reinforces beneficial behaviors such as eating, socializing or sexual activity. This complex reward circuit that generates pleasure is the result of evolution and guarantees our survival, since it guides us towards food or sex, which perpetuates the species. The more dopamine receptors we have, the greater the ability to generate pleasant sensations naturally and the less the need to obtain them through addictive behaviors. On the other hand, the mixture of adversity and stress affects its quantity and functioning, which contributes to the loss of motivation and self-control; It makes us less sensitive to the satisfactions of everyday life and prone to trying to improve our condition through addictive behaviors. The sudden discharge of dopamine they cause translates into a short circuit of pleasurable sensations that gratify us. The momentary rush of dopamine prompts the brain to put aside other activities and more creative ends.

Brain imaging studies of people with addiction disorder show physical changes in areas of the brain essential for good judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control. According to Nora Volkow – director of NIDA (an acronym for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in the United States) and a pioneer in research on the effects of drug abuse on the brain – these changes help to explain the compulsive nature of behaviors addictive. Volkow and his collaborators recorded decreased activity in the frontal lobes. In particular, the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of the personality, the executive part that regulates goal planning, abstract thinking, reasoning, as well as the ability to think critically and exercise restraint.

Fortunately, only a minority of people with addictive behaviors become addicted. According to the researchers, to prevent it, it helps to develop strategies that promote self-control, especially in the context of stress; strategies to promote natural and healthy rewards, such as social contact or moderate exercise, able to compete advantageously with addictive behaviors – even when we find ourselves isolated from our communities. Finally, try to avoid situations in which you are particularly vulnerable to addictive behaviors, to thereby stimulate self-regulation, and reduce the likelihood that conditioned desire will exacerbate them. Ultimately, the decisive step is that — despite things not going the way you would like — you can act autonomously and on your own initiative and, more than anything, accept that the feeling of a fundamental lack is inherent in the existence. —eps

David Dorenbaum is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.


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