Wednesday Black Session Week 5
The Other Side
Filling The Vessel
John J. Ratey
SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
“One way to look at addiction is that the brain has learned something too well”
There are all kinds of examples of people who have replaced addiction with exercise, instituting routines in their lives that serve as a healthy alternative to the full time pursuit of drugs. As I explained, the addict’s brain adapts at every level to focus attention and effort around getting the reward. The brain functions the same way whether the addiction is to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, or any other addictive substance or behavior. As addiction progresses, there is less and less room for anything else in life.When an addict quits, what’s left is emptiness. In this respect, dealing with addiction is similar to feelings of anxiety and depression: getting rid of the problem is only the first step. Once the addiction or the negative emotions are gone, the void needs to be filled with some positive behavior for the change to take root. There can hardly be a better option than physical exercise. After all, this is what we’re supposed to be doing – moving in the world.The fact that exercise counteracts anxiety and depression directly can have a huge impact on any form of addiction, as both of these mood states undermine treatment. A recovering addict who is feeling anxious or hipeless is much more likely to slip in her determination and ability to quit. People are more impulsive when they feel lousey. Both strength training and aerobic exercise decrease symptoms of depression in recovering alcoholics and smokers who have quit. And as I pointed out, the more fit you are, the more resilient you are. If you are flexible in managing stress, you’re less likely to reach for that bottle of liquor or bag of chips or pack of cigarettes. Keeping the stress system under control is also important, practically speaking, for ameliorating the physical symptoms of withdrawal, to get through those nightmarish first few days.If the brain is flexible, the mind is stronger, and this gets at a concept known as self-efficacy. It’s difficult to measure, but it relates to confidence in our ability to change ourselves. For most addicts, if they stop to consider how they may be destroying their lives, they suddenly feel like they can’t handle anything, let alone their self-control over their addiction. Exercise, though, can have a powerful impact on the way an addict feels about himself. If he’s engaged in a new pursuit such as exercise, which involves work and commitment, and he’s able to follow through and be persistent with it, that sense of self-control spreads to other areas of his life.