The Art of Relating

Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW

Beating Addiction: The Missing Link for Success


I have spoken to many clients at length about balance. I tell them that in the absence of balance there is stress and at times chaos. The struggle against “excess” is something many of us battle to overcome. When someone leaves a holiday desert at my house it almost haunts me from its resting place on the counter. I vacillate wildly between “I want a piece now.” and “I don’t need to eat that cake”. Mental exhaustion ensues until finally I just throw it in the garbage can, grateful for the relief as this battle has subsided until the next situation arises. I stopped drinking and smoking, but have not kicked excess coffee consumption and still need to eat to stay alive. Why do some people have a harder time than others? Why do we either under-do something or we over-do it completely? Why do we work out too much and too hard or choose not to exercise at all? Why do we say we are going to make a whole bunch of change all at once or no change at all? For many of us it is hard to find the middle ground, and for a lot of us, these addictions can ruin certain aspect of our lives. We are out of balance so to speak. The answer lies in our neurotransmitters.

I strongly feel that anyone with excess tendencies, especially when they have become problematic, are dealing with a neurotransmitter issue. Neurotransmitters communicate information throughout our brain and body. For the purposes of this article we need to understand that they also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. When it comes to addiction, two specific neurotransmitters are of note including Serotonin and Dopamine. Dopamine is our main “focus” neurotransmitter. Most importantly, it is responsible for our drive or desire to acquire- be that food, sex, an achievement or a drug. When you drink coffee or receive a text message (clearly drugs and alcohol as well), dopamine is being released. It makes people more talkative and excitable, which often leaves them wanting more. Serotonin is our well-being neurotransmitter. It is the chemical that allows us to be content and happy. It seems to help keep our moods under control by helping with sleep, calming anxiety and relieving depression.

In total, there seems to be 3 major imbalances that can cause someone to be addicted.

Dopamine Dominance: high dopamine/low serotonin
Because serotonin levels are low, we are not happy nor content. Instead of feeling proud of our accomplishments, all we can think about is what we haven’t accomplished. We see problems with our life everywhere. Being naturally high in Dopamine, we seek to escape these painful problems and increase the pleasure in our lives and therefore addiction forms.

Serotonin Dominance: low dopamine/high serotonin
Because dopamine levels are low, the ability to focus and organize is non-existent. We no longer have that drive, so lack of energy is a common symptom here. A person with low dopamine levels will struggle with decision making, impulse control, learning from past mistakes and monitoring oneself will be severely lacking.

Deficiency in Dopamine and Serotonin: low in both
When you abuse drugs to long and don’t provide the necessary nutrients to rebuild your neurotransmitter levels, a deficiency occurs. You can only rely on 4 hrs. of sleep, a diet of sugar and 10 cups of coffee a day for so long before you crash and the depression hits. When you do hit this bottom (a brain state of low dopamine and low serotonin) there will be no significant drivers in your life nor will there be any happiness.

All 3 of these brain profiles are a recipe for addiction. Additionally, if you have erratic exercise and eating behavior, it could mean that one of these brain profiles (imbalances) is behind it and rebalancing your brain can help. Knowledge is essential in formulating a plan to make changes to something you want to fix. If you recognize yourself in one of these 3 scenarios, never fear as there is hope. You need to develop a targeted plan to address the neurotransmitter imbalance through diet, exercise and proper supplementation to shore up any neurotransmitter deficits. Remember, if you struggle with addiction, it is not due to a lack of willpower or effort in most cases. Balancing your neurotransmitters is one important factor in beating addiction. However, it is the counseling piece that helps to rid yourself of the negative self -talk, poor self-esteem and a myriad of other outside factors getting in the way of your success.

Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Therapist and Relationship Coach in private practice. Call today to schedule your free consultation and mention the Healthy Planet (314-374-8396).