There are many possible reasons why a person might choose to pick up a drink, use drugs, or engage in other compulsive behaviors, but one of the most popular reasons is boredom. Nearly everyone gets bored from time to time, so the idea of having an occasional drink or drug because we’re bored may sound relatively benign. You know, like no big deal, right? Well, it can be no big deal, but not for people who are prone to frequent bouts of it. Boredom-prone individuals run a much higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, and addiction among other things.
Numerous theories exist about why this is, and perhaps they’re all correct. Those of us with a history of drug or alcohol abuse (or other behavioral addictions) have various underlying issues that ultimately culminated in us seeking out unhealthy coping strategies. These are different for each of us. That said, there’s no black and white answer as to what the link is between boredom and addiction. Having a basic understanding of how the mind of an addict operates, however, can help us to formulate some ideas.
So, what exactly is Addiction?
In layman’s terms, and according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “addiction is a disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” When these circuits don’t function properly, it can lead to biological, psychological, social and spiritual issues.
Those of us who are prone to addictive or compulsive behaviors may seek out more or heightened pleasure from the average because we aren’t experiencing enough of it through normal activity. The reason for this is that the pleasure-reward system in our brains, otherwise known as our dopamine reward system, is low-functioning. It’s something that’s been proven over and over again in brain imaging of rats and monkeys that exhibit abnormally compulsive or addictive behaviors. And if you subscribe to this disease model, then you’ll likely find that most true-blue “addicts” do, in fact, get bored relatively easily. This is why it’s so critical for those who get clean to have some type of long-term and sustainable recovery maintenance plan in place.
Someone with a normally functioning dopamine reward system, for example, is going to be perfectly fine walking into a bar with a group of friends and enjoying, say, a beer or two. A person with a low functioning dopamine reward system, on the other hand, likely isn’t going to want to stop after just a couple of beers. Either they’re going to want more, or they may seek out pleasure elsewhere, whether that’s in the form of sex, gambling, internet porn, or some other compulsive behavior.
What causes Addiction?
Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for around 40%-60% of one’s vulnerability to addiction. This still leaves a lot of room for other theories as to why some of us have (or develop) this low functioning dopamine reward system. One theory attributes it to childhood trauma that occurs while our brains are still developing. Another suggests that when we begin drinking or using drugs excessively, for whatever reason, our brains can stop producing enough dopamine on their own, thus resulting in a dependency. The latter theory presupposes that we actually create an addiction. That being said, the “addiction as a disease” model would still apply because once the dependency has been established, the brain physically stops functioning properly on its own. In theory, at least.
Regardless of the “why,” the disease model only supports that which suggests our brain circuitry is flawed. So, if we go by the formal definition of addiction, that means that in recovery, we can adopt strategies to reduce cravings, but we’ll always be “addicts.” Or, at the very least, we’re always going to be prone to compulsive behavior as a coping strategy.
How does Boredom tie into all of this?
Again, if we subscribe to the disease model, then it makes sense that a true “addict” can easily fall into the boredom trap. It also helps explain why addiction is often comorbid with other psychological conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with ADHD are easily bored and often seek outside stimuli.
While it’s hard to measure actual boredom levels of an individual, it stands to reason that someone with a flawed dopamine reward center likely gets bored more easily than someone without. Things like healthy sexual activity, recreational drug use, and a glass of wine with dinner are going to be pleasurable for people with healthy brain circuitry. For those of us with low functioning dopamine reward centers, on the other hand, healthy sex, occasional drug use, and just a couple of drinks might just be, well, boring. We want all of it, and more of it, and with far more frequency and intensity. This tends to hold true when it comes to things like risk-taking behavior as well. Anything that keeps our brains constantly engaged, which isn’t always easy to do.
Is the genetic model accurate? Probably, but not necessarily for everyone. Again, there are so many variables in relation to when the addiction actually took hold or if it was, indeed, something that existed at birth. The bottom line, however, is that the addict brain, once these patterns have been established, tends to need more stimulus than the average one. This can be dangerous for those in recovery because if we don’t make our recovery maintenance a daily reprieve, we can easily slip back into boredom. This then puts us at risk of a relapse.
The Good News
The good news about all of this is that those of us who are prone to drug and alcohol abuse, or other compulsive behaviors, very often tend to be highly creative, intelligent, dynamic individuals. In recovery, we have the opportunity to channel this need for constant stimulus into healthy activities, hobbies, and creative or entrepreneurial endeavors. Some of the most accomplished artists and entrepreneurs in the world are addicts in recovery.
Entering into recovery is probably the most challenging thing that an addict can experience in his or her lifetime. One of the most common fears for addicts who give up drinking, using, or other compulsive behaviors, is that they’ll become bored (*sigh*). And understandably so. It takes time for the boredom to subside after we get clean, but once we learn how to properly channel this craving for stimuli, we’re in the unique position to accomplish amazing feats.
If you’re new to recovery and you’re feeling bored, apathetic, or just plain complacent, be patient with yourself and know that you have the ability to change this. Start composing that ballad you’ve been sitting on for ages, or writing that book, or learning guitar. And if this all sounds a little too ambitious, just start reaching your hand out to other folks who are struggling. Someone who just put down the bottle of booze, or pills, or the porn may just need to hear that someone else can relate to their struggles. There’s power in connection, and you’ll likely find over time that by connecting with others who feel the same, you can all lift each other up and out of the boredom slump.
Kemabli Recovery Center can Help
If you or someone that you love is struggling with drug or alcohol dependency, other compulsive behaviors, or even chronic boredom that you think puts you at risk, Kembali is here for you. Contact us today to learn more about our four-week treatment program. You never have to do this alone.