Addiction - It's the Seeking not the Consumption.
In a recent Newsletter (Addiction 3rd June 2019) I discussed the ‘addictive’ forms of behaviour that teachers deal with, particularly the people addiction. This newsletter takes a more formal look at addiction and the role it plays in behaviour.
Most work, understandably focuses on fear as being the fundamental source of stress. This is reasonable as it is the easiest to observe, we have no problem linking traumatic events with elevated levels of stress; fear is still seen as the most significant emotion. Compounding this is the fact that in animal studies it is relatively straightforward to put a ‘lab rat’ in a situation that evokes panic and study their reactions.
However, the underpinning premise of our model of behaviour is that the task of the young brain is to have us survive. The drive to protect us from outside threats is only one half of the equation, to survive we need to ‘consume’ things, food, water oxygen, love, etc. When these are denied to us our anxiety levels quickly elevate and the resulting stress has just as a profound effect on our wellbeing as does the threat of attack.
This is the seeking phase of our strategy to survive. It is the search for things that maintain a level of satisfaction, that is when we are in homeostatic disequilibrium and we need something to make up the deficit we ‘consume’ and return to equilibrium. This consumption gives us pleasure.
Just like the protection cycle, this seeking sequence is driven by an an electro/chemical response in this case the chemicals are predominantly dopamine and serotonin. These have two separate functions; the serotonin signals the return to equilibrium with the feeling of pleasure; the dopamine fuels the drive to seek what is required to produce the conditions of satisfaction. Unlike the fear related chemicals, these substances are sought for the feelings they produce regardless of an individual’s state of physical comfort. The ‘high’ they produce is the focus of drug addiction.
In the case of satisfaction, the leading drug is in the opioid family, things like opium or heroine. But, it is in the seeking phase, where dopamine is the driver we find the methamphetamine are used, the ‘speed’ and ‘ice’.
Dopamine is not the reward but creates the desperate longing that doesn’t actually feel good in itself but by focusing the attention on a goal it brings a powerful feeling of purpose to the individual. It injects them with a level of energy that is intense, they feel alive. For children with a history of abuse or neglect for them, this feeling of having a purpose is extremely satisfying. They come to crave that feeling of seeking much more than the satisfaction the seeking is designed to satiate.
This critique of the electro/chemical response illustrates the power of the seeking system and how easy it can become a major factor in the driving of dysfunctional behaviour. We are concerned with the behaviour in the classroom, the tantrums, the anger, the violence when kids don’t get their way. It’s prudent to remember that, as with the protective dysfunctional behaviours the tactics they use did work when they were being ‘learned’ but in a different environment they fail to achieve their goal.
The diagram below clarifies how the increase in stress manifests into the outrageous behaviours often witnessed in schools.
Although the elevation of stress levels is the same as the response to the fear of the current environment the expression is different. This may best be demonstrated by a child’s need to be attached. In the first instance it maybe that the child is rejected by a significant other, perhaps a parent. Their earliest reaction will be to try behaviours that have worked in the past to be noticed but when these don’t work the resulting psychological pain is immense. The seeking cycle is when a child selects someone who they want in their ‘world’ and when this other person rejects the child’s advances the dopamine cycle gets ignited and as this grows the behaviour becomes more dysfunctional.
At school the problem surrounding the dysfunctional seeking behaviours can be difficult. In recent years the emergence of children who have become over-indulged in early childhood (see Newsletter 22nd May 2017 – Education the over-indulged and Narcissistic Child’) has resulted in a growth in this form of dysfunctional expression of behaviour, the spoilt brat’s behaviour.
These children begin with wanting something, perhaps a piece of equipment, to be picked in a team or to belong to a group of friends. When they are first denied access to what they want they become aroused and the dopamine is released, this feeds their seeking behaviour and unless they get what they want eventually they will ‘lose control’ over their behaviour.
For the teacher, how to deal with this form of student behaviour is the same as other destructive student behaviours. Keep the classroom calm, teach appropriate boundaries and develop a professional relationship with that student so they get the time to create a sense of self that allows them to survive in their world.