(Thirteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
We are living in particularly precarious times – for people born since WWII, unprecedented problems the world over – seemingly beyond our ability to control or to deal with effectively. With the Coronavirus pandemic, complex problems have arisen for our global society to attempt to solve, from the manufacturing and transport of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the best medical treatments and the development of a vaccine – which is viewed by many as the magic potion but only if the majority of people could be convinced to ‘get the jab.’
During this extraordinary year pain has come into most of our lives in ways we have not experienced previously: physical pain from contracting Covid19, emotional pain from being isolated or from watching those we know or care for becoming sick and dying, and mental pain from the anxiety caused by all the unknowns surrounding the pandemic. For people living in poverty, these problems are compounded.
For individuals and societies to be faced with inescapable pain can bring a hopelessness that is insurmountable. Suicides in almost every country have increased markedly as have deaths from overdose and alcohol poisoning. And for individuals struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, any disruption in their supply and ability to access even their normal intake on any given day, as has happened this year, will result in pain. When we feel pain, our natural response to is find a way to rid ourselves of it: the more intense the pain, the more urgent the desire to relieve it and, many times, the more drastic the methods.
Dopamine is the “feel-good” chemical messenger released in our brains during pleasurable situations. Recent research has shown that when we experience stress or pain, not only does our brain release endorphins, which act to block pain in a similar way to opioids, our dopamine system also becomes highly active. This gives us a post-pain high similar to that which is experienced by marathon runners or the rush from opioids. Pain can be self-inflicted following the habitual use of opioids: as soon as the pleasurable dopamine burst wears off, pain associated with the absence of opioids returns.
Sam Quinones discusses pain avoidance at length in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, explaining that it is largely responsible for the opioid epidemic in America because pain avoidance is intertwined with our culture of supremely valuing comfort and prosperity. In societies where a culture of avoiding pain at all costs is a subliminal message many buy into, the question is: to what lengths do we go to avoid pain? And in those attempts, are we wasting precious time and energy on temporary fixes instead of on more productive and long-term solutions?
The reality is that the presence of pain in human experience is unavoidable. Once we settle this issue with ourselves, we can embrace a different outlook when faced with unanticipated and painful circumstances and look for ways to improve or change our behaviors and increase our own dopamine naturally. And for those attempting to be clean and sober, as you work your recovery assisted by medication, community, and therapy, you can begin to increase your own “feel good” dopamine, which increases motivation, with these tools and actions:
- Regular daily exercise
- Healthy diet including plenty of protein
- Sleep at least 8 hours nightly
- Meditation and spiritual practices
- Practice gratitude by giving and serving others regularly
- Spend time in nature
- Listen to soothing music