It’s not just the substance

Research conducted at Canada’s Concordia University shows that addiction runs much deeper than the substance itself. Addiction experts have been talking about ‘triggers’ that make recovery difficult for addicts. It turns out that triggers don’t necessarily have to be stressful conditions, they could be the sight of something we associate with our habit – even a drinking glass will do.

Researcher Nadia Chaudhri says that it’s not just the taste, or even the effects, of drink that form part of addiction. It’s the way a drink looks, tastes and smells that grabs us as well as the environmental associations that go with it. Environmental cues other than alcohol can trigger the addiction response, and Chaudhri says her research on rats shows just how deeply rooted our response to such triggers are.

When alcoholics hope to quit, they need to understand cues

She calls the factors that trigger certain behaviors ‘predictive cues’, meaning that certain cues predict the next drink and can become almost as difficult to counter as being confronted with or offered the substance we’re addicted to. Once we’re confronted with the cue, we automatically reach for the next drink, because that’s become a conditioned behavior that’s triggered by the cues.

Chaudhri’s research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, and although it doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t already suspect, it’s nevertheless proof that alcohol addiction encompasses addiction to the cues that predict the next drinking session. Chaudhri says that the environment surrounding alcohol also needs to be considered when alcohol addicts decide they need to quit. Even a familiar drinking glass design could act as a cue to hit the bottle.

The cue may become more important than the substance itself

While we already know that cues or triggers form an important part of addiction, Chaudhri’s research brings an interesting element into the equation. The rats used in her experiment began to become even more excited by the cue than the reward. They began to have such an intense association with the cue and enjoyment, that it became more important to them than the substance itself.

What’s a rat’s preferred tipple?

That’s a tough question to answer, but the 25 ratty participants in Chaudhri’s trial were very happy with ‘hard tack’ in the form of ethanol. When it became time for the next rodent party, the rats would be provided with a visual cue along with a stiff drink. Soon the rats got the message. If the cue was presented before the booze, they’d hurriedly move towards the place where they expected drinks service to begin. So far, nothing is surprising, but then…

Unexpected behavior sheds light on addiction

The rats began to do something really remarkable. They became so pleased to see their visual cue, that they became enchanted with it. Instead of moving to the rodent bar area for a stiff drink, they began approaching the cue. They even tried to interact with it. It became their ‘friend’ – or at least – their drinking buddy.

What does this imply?

Animal models often provide us with a simplified yet powerful guideline towards the ways that human behaviors develop. Chaudhri concludes that it’s not just the reward (alcohol) that is sought out as being highly desirable, it’s also the trigger or cue. That’s right! Read between the lines and you’ve got it: a cue can become almost as desirable if not more sought after than the actual substance we’re addicted to. We may even seek it out without really meaning to seek out alcohol! Of course, it’s a desirable element that tells us that the next drink will also be the next step, so the resulting drinking binge is predictable.

If alcohol is your drug of choice, here’s what this means to you

Just resolving to quit and detoxing isn’t enough. You and your counsellor need to work through emotional, visual, auditory and olfactory cues that make you expect a drinking session to follow. Regretfully, these may include some of your favorite things. As we saw with Chaudhri’s rats, the thing that they associated with their shot of hard tack became an enormous drawcard.

But learned behaviors can be un-learned, and in time, the power of cues begin to fade too. You really can have a better life after alcohol addiction, but quitting is tough and understanding your cues and avoiding them where possible helps you to achieve a worthwhile goal.

What friends and family need to know

Addiction is a complex ailment, and many things contribute to it. Help your loved one to stay away from things that he or she associates with drinking. Unfortunately, these might be things that don’t necessarily imply drinking to you, but that do imply that booze is the next step to your loved one. Be sensitive. Ask questions. Be involved in family counselling if you’re family. Together, you can beat alcohol addiction.

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