In early recovery, it is difficult for a person in treatment to quickly return to their previous life. It is often highly suggested against. Without much scientific data to back them up, counselors and therapist usually supply an answer that involves something about triggers, it’s too soon, and you don’t have the tools yet. All of these are valid, but they do not explain the process of what happens when you go somewhere or participate in an activity where pleasure was once affiliated. Cravings are more than a neurobiological phenomena. They are a scientific process, with research and data to back them up. Some of that understanding comes from food.
Food Cravings: Lessons in Addiction
Cravings for food are similar to cravings for drugs and alcohol. Substances send chemical signals into the brain when they are consumed. Most commonly, they produce dopamine, which tells the reward center of the brain what is a pleasure and what is not. Brains like pleasure. When pleasure is received from a certain substance in a certain situation, the brain stores that information for future reference.
For example, popcorn at the movies. Certainly, popcorn is always available at the movies. The smell wafts through the lobby, and the in-theater advertisements are designed to make you hungry. However, from your first experience in a movie theater, putting those soft, crunchy, fluffy, buttery, salty, morsels to your lips, your brain created a programming: Movies = popcorn = pleasure. Furthermore, when pleasure is activated in the brain, it stores meaning about emotions as well. Pleasure isn’t hedonistic.
Happiness and pleasure are deeply entwined. For many food addicts, certain food made them feel happy, or, made them feel less sad. Drug and alcohol addiction becomes the new happiness for addicts, over time. Whatever the emotional situation being faced by an addict, if there is a desire to feel differently, a craving will be instigated, as the brain knows just what to do to bring pleasure back to the forefront.
Unlike food cravings, alcohol and drug cravings are also born out of necessity. All of those memories and programs about pleasure change the midbrain, which holds the order of importance for survival. Food, eating, is already on the scale. Drug and alcohol consumption is not. As more memories get stored with more associations to pleasure, addiction rises not just through the rankings, but all the way to the top. As a result, the body produces symptoms of withdrawal when those substances are not present. Surely, anyone can end up in a bad mood when they desperately crave a cupcake and don’t get to eat one. They will not likely suffer withdrawal because of it.