How Does Reinforcement Stimulation Create Addiction?

girl anhappyReinforcement stimulation is a very real factor in our daily lives. Whether prompting us to eat more fast food or develop a debilitating substance abuse problem, reinforced stimuli drive how we live and breathe. When it comes to the world of psychology, reinforcement is a general term that refers to anything that increases the likelihood that the same behavior will repeat itself. A primary aspect of any type of reinforcement is that it has a certain impact on behavior - it will strengthen or increase the behavior in question. Anything that strengthens or increases the frequency of a given behavior is considered reinforcement. This means that reinforcement comes in many shapes and forms when referring to drug addiction. It can both lead you to a drug addiction, and help lead you out of addictive behavior.

Reinforcement Stimulation Leading to Drug Addiction

Reinforcement stimuli are widely considered to be major contributors to drug addiction. When an addict uses a drug, a complex series of neurochemical processes take place that associate this behavior with pleasure. When this pleasure fades, the behavior of taking the drug is reinforced by the association of pleasure with the drug. Continued drug usage provides additional chemical reinforcement stimulation that often leads to substance abuse and addiction. The brain contains an entire complex reinforcement system that's known as the mesolimbic pathway. This system is composed of reinforcers that are believed to increase and adjust the levels of dopamine within the drug user's brain. Dopamine is an important chemical that's associated primarily with pleasure and happiness. Under natural conditions, this system helps reinforce behavior that sustain life, such as eating healthy food or working out. lonely girl in the cityHowever, when cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, opiates or other drugs are involved - the system is short circuited. The mesolimbic pathway is stimulated and an unnatural amount of dopamine is released. These extreme bursts of euphoria act as strong reinforcement for repeating the initial behavior - drug use. Over time, the effects will lessen and the drug user is required to increase their dose in order to receive the same stimulation. This process also leads to motivational toxicity. Motivational toxicity is a term used to describe the deterioration of being able to receive normal rewards, such as dopamine, for important behavior for continuing life. Eventually, an addict will only be able to feel rewarded through drug use.

How To End the Cycle

Freeing yourself from the reinforcement stimuli that lead to addiction is a difficult task, but one worth pursuing. The exact course of action will vary from person to person, however, you'll need to seek help with ending use in a safe way. Once usage has ended, you can start using natural ways to provide healthy reinforcement stimulation. Below are a few examples of ways former addicts have harnessed the mesolimbic pathway to take control of the behavior that is being reinforced:
  • Participating in fitness-related hobbies, such as cycling, hiking or yoga
  • Putting effort into enhancing health through proper nutrition
  • Engaging in positive social interactions with friends and family
Each of these activities and life focuses will activate the mesolimbic pathway and provide some level of dopamine that forms positive, life-affirming habits.
Sources:
  1. Kendra Cherry, What is Reinforcement?, About Psychology, http://psychology.about.com/od/operantconditioning/f/reinforcement.htm
  2. Roy A Wise and George F Koob, The Development and Maintenance of Drug Addiction, Nature, http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v39/n2/full/npp2013261a.html
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