Sparking and desparked: Addictive buzz traps after Covid
Addictive behaviours have increased since covid, driven by factors such as depression, isolation, economic uncertainty, pressures of family life and much more. In the last year or so I have become increasingly interested in the idea of sparking, when people are deparked, such as after isolation, neglect, trauma or depression, but also when people feel empty inside and attempt to fend this off with a kind of misfiring sparking, a desperate attempt to feel more alive in the face of hard-to-manage inner feelings. Addictions involve a pursuing and a desire, albeit often an out of kilter one, and are borne out of an evolved capacity to seek out things that we need, like food or sex. It is no coincidence that the brain pathways involved in this, often called the mesolimbic reward circuitry, including the role of the neuromodulator dopamine, involved in all addictive processes.
We have desires and drives from the first moments of life. A newborn can effortfully crawl from its mother’s abdomen towards her breast, generally looking into her eyes on the way, and on finding the breast, can start to suck, illustrating its appetite for both emotional and physical sustenance. Here already we witness a lifeforce, called a seeking system by Panksepp , driving us towards what we desire,. People I describe as unsparked, can lack such a desire, have turned away from what Symington called their lifegiver, withdrawing into an anti-life anti-hope stance.
What stimulates most desire and reward early on is the need for relationship, which with luck is our primary driver throughout life, but not so in very unsparked people who turn inwards, away from connection. Addictions are a classic way to avoid pain and manage what otherwise feels overwhelming. For decades I have offered therapy to those struggling with powerful addictions, from gaming, alcohol, drugs, food, and of course, pornography.
Of course any of us have addictive tendencies, whether towards chocolate, cake, whiskey, social media or shopping, to name a few. My own addictions include screens, and things that look healthy, like shopping in charity shops, work and exercise. Any stressor can lead us to turn to our objects of potential addiction, such as reaching for chocolate after a stressful moment, or that large glass of wine at the end of a hard day.
All addictions piggyback on, or even highjack, brain circuitry involved in pleasure or reward seeking, systems which have been helpful in evolutionary history. For example, without food and sex, humans would not have passed on our genes, and lives would be far less enjoyable. In most species, including humans, such reward circuitry is most in action when there is a felt need. The tiger does not hunt after a huge meal, and most animals, including humans, don’t seek out sex straight after a satisfying intimate encounter. If we are reasonably emotionally secure and easeful, we might not be urgently seeking out new rewards but can respond when a potential one shows up. Hunter-gathers might, for example, quickly change tack when they see that a nutrient rich animal or a tree with honey.
What can be forgotten is that this reward circuitry is designed for the long game, such as hunting an animal for hours or even days, which requires motivation, energy and an expectation of reward at the end. In my twenties I traded in antiques, it was similar to being on a hunt, albeit probably more addictive, experiencing a buzzy expectation as I approached a market in expectation of that huge find that sadly rarely appeared. I still find it hard to know what is healthy dopamine fueling or an addictive urge.
We all can defend against inner deadness via addictive processes. Neglect, learned helplessness, depression, or trauma can lead to a contraction in our beings and a dampening down, a loss of hope, spark and motivation. Gabor Mate and others suggest that addictive propensities can be ways to fill such holes after trauma.
What is needed in trauma, and also addiction, are relational approaches, the soothing of the nervous system by good interpersonal mutuality and relational safeness. While behavioral approaches to addictive tendencies can be effective, e.g. managing triggers or removing the object of addiction, a whole-person healthier approach means helping to develop a sense of ease, safeness, trust – what I call safening – and from there it is possible to reboot and rekindle desire and healthier reward seeking, again especially from human relationships.
Addictions, flatness and anhedonia
Neglect particularly can dampen spark and desire. Those who have worked with people adopted from depriving orphanages, know how they can be flat, listless, struggle to recognise emotions, with little capacity to give and receive loving care, experiencing too little pleasure and turning away from relationships.
Many brain areas, including the circuitry central to reward seeking, are affected by early adversity, blunting links between prefrontal regions and mesolimbic dopaminergic reward circuitry, including seeing less dopaminergic neurons develop, hence less reward seeking. Of course, life is more rewarding and spark-inducing in lives in which good experiences have come to be expected, which is not the case in neglect, when what becomes expected is often blankness and deadness.
When I have a good experience, I will generally try to make such a thing happen again. The given-up orphan alone in a cot has a very different motivational system to the new-born reaching towards an adoring parent. The biggest motivator is loving, safe mutually enjoyable relationships, for kids or adults. Many sadly have lacked these, and give up, on hope, relationships, leading to low energy, lifeless bodies and less activity in the brain’s reward pathways. Then we often see anhedonia, that lack of ability feel pleasure and seek rewards, which is common in addictions.
The latest Facebook or Tik-tok post, or other objects of addiction such as many drugs, can spark a false hope, excitement, hauling people out of desparked states. Such an object of reward, such as gaming or pornography, provides a spike, probably wrongly described as a dopamine hit, which can be exciting but does not give rise to genuine satisfaction. Quickly the bad feelings return, as does the urge, leading to a vicious cycle.
I see this a lot with those I work with, especially those who are isolated as many have been recently, many of whom have few interests. In fact their flatness can resonate making it easy to also feel flat around them. When the lows return, they often return to the object of addiction, whether compulsive screen use, food, cocaine etc, which give momentary respite from deadness, immediate rewards of sorts, but ultimately do not shift the anhedonia.
Thus we see a vicious circle, the addiction can temporarily spark reward circuitry, but over time the addictive substance becomes less rewarding, and more is needed to get that thrill, stronger drugs, harder pornography. When withdrawal is attempted, anhedonia redoubles, and they are in a cleft stick. The reward is less rewarding, but they can’t help seeking it, and if they try to withdraw. Sadly, many when trying to come off their addiction will experience high levels of anhedonia, and this can be made worse by a newly discovered process called dopaminylation, in which drugs like cocaine turn neutral stem cells into dopaminergic neurons, increasing the cravings and also leading to more anhedonia.. It is the seeking that becomes addictive, giving a hint of hope and desire, even if the putative reward is not rewarding. Here the addiction is the symptom not the problem, and what is needed is an emotional reset, normally in a good safe relationship in which one can feel cared for and understood, which in turn can lead to a resparking of healthy desire.
Healthier sparking after addictive deadened states?
If I have a wonderful experience with a particular person, my reward circuits will probably fire up when I see that person again or even at the thought of meeting them. This might be a close friend who makes us feel good, a desired sexual partner or a tree with honey in it. The VTA (ventral tegmental area) is where much dopamine is made and it is connected to multiple other brain areas. So, if I find an activity rewarding, like finding honey, our reward circuitry says ‘I loved that, I will make sure to do it again’. Our dopaminergic circuitry via the VTA connects to multiple brain areas, including the amygdala, central to emotionality (‘wow, that feels incredible), the hippocampus (‘involved in remembering, eg oh yes it was there’) the nucleus accumbens, helping to find and access any potential reward, and the prefrontal areas which can be good at working out how to do what is needed. When I actually get the thing I have been seeking, such as a satisfying sexual encounter, other neurotransmitters come into action, including serotonin, involved in feeling good, or oxytocin, central in loving feelings. People in more contracted unsparked states rarely feel satisfied and lack access to such a broader spectrum of positive experiences.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences research shows how trauma is linked with increased addictive tendencies, and sadly also with less capacity to enjoy rewarding experiences, less contentment or satisfaction and more anhedonia. Those who early on lacked love and pleasure often compensate by pushing for rewards which in fact do not satisfy. Big-Tech and gaming companies are expert at stimulating desires for rewards, whether ‘likes’ and new ‘friends’ on social media, new Tiktok videos, all hyper-stimulating dopaminergic areas of the brain.
For many people I work with, their addiction can override almost anything, to their serious detriment. In old experiments, scientists connected electrodes to a rat’s reward circuitry, and the rats could stimulate that area by pulling a lever, which they did almost continuously, sometimes more than 2000 times per hour, ignoring vital needs, such as hunger, thirst, potential mates or their infants’ needs. We see something similar in human heroin and other addictions, possibly including gaming.
It is hard know if something is good for us or not when in the grip of addictions. An average creature, whether rat or human, rejects an offer, such as of food, if it comes with something unrewarding, such as an electric shock. Not so addicted rats or humans. Extremely hungry rats rarely risk a painful shock in order to get the food they need, but addicted rats will undergo huge amounts of pain to get their fix, which we often also see in drug users, who might steal or betray loved ones to get their addiction satiated..
Contemporary addictions and stimuli, like screen-based games or powerful dopamine inducing drugs, are nothing that our evolutionary history has prepared us for. The dopaminergic system should function as what neuroscientist Andrew Huberman called a kind of courage circuitry. If I am hunting and I sense my prey nearby, I probably get a dopamine spike in physiological systems which then increase desire and effort. This is healthy ‘sparking’ to keep me on-task to achieve my goal. This is hugely different to novel drugs or even social media that offer an all too-easy offer of whatever reward is on-hand.
If I gain my reward, my desire, appetite and seeking system should lower. When life is going well, other psychological, emotional and brain systems become central, such as those needed for feeling satisfaction and ease or love. In addictions such a wide range of satisfactions are often absent; there might be little serotonin-induced feelings from doing well on a hunt, or oxytocin release from loving meetings. In desparked states such as neglect, depression and trauma, addictions give rise to a lopsided, truncated and skewed set of our potential feeling states, or to continue my electrical metaphor, all the charge and energy goes to one place only, short-circuiting other needed experiences. Here the therapist’s task is ‘safening’, to reset by developing safeness, ease and calm. This only happens from good human interpersonal connection of course, and helping people to open up to the possibility of trusting mutually enjoyable and safe relationships is the most important task. Only with such a safening can we help to facilitate a reboot which enables a healthier, more rounded and life-enhancing sparking.