Marijuana and Attachment #Oxytocin

Marijuana and Attachment

November 1, 2015

In light of the Liberals recent victory and election promise to legalize marijuana, I thought it may be a prudent time to share my thoughts on chemicals, addiction, and marijuana in particular.

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The term ‘SELF MEDICATION‘ is used to describe someone who uses a substance to change how they feel about themselves. It usually carries with it, a fairly pejorative connotation.

But virtually anything you do, from exercise, to food choices, to even your very thoughts right now, trigger specific responses in your body, similar to a medication.

If you are interested about that specifically, please check out You Are the Placebo.

There are many ways to inject a new sensation into your own body, as you move away from your default homeostasis. Starbucks morning, the endorphins on exercise highs, Umami from a sushi lunch, even the love you may feel towards a partner, or friend.

Every one of us interacts with our environment, through objects, and relationships, to create a desired internal feeling.

We are all self medicating all the time, and much of it is positive, as we strive to stay healthy, informed, attractive, and good.

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There is a particular experience that is necessary to our well being, yet rarely talked about. We are the most social creatures on the planet, and we require attachments to stay emotionally healthy.

Newborn humans enjoy the longest periods of parasitic behavior compared to any other animal on the planet. At birth we start a psychedelic trip of sounds and sights that make absolutely no sense, and we only have some vague awareness that we are completely helpless.

We depend upon others for our necessities, until arguably, the late teens. It may be longer for some, especially if you are currently sporting a beard.

And some of us have a hard enough time taking care of ourselves, let alone someone else. So how do these cute little gremlins, ever survive long enough, to make it to self reliance?

The answer is Oxytocin.

Oxytocin has various names, from ‘the attachment chemical’ to ‘the love drug’. It is a chemical in your brain that is associated with the feeling of pleasure while bonding. It is produced in large quantities by the mother when she is spending time keeping her infant happy and engaged.

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This chemical is thought to help attune one person to another’s emotions, as well as to provide a feeling of reassurance and comfort. It also helps provide a feeling of empathy, when you think of the person, or are around them.

John Bowlby was the Psychoanalyst who founded Attachment Theory, where he described the complex physiological bond that occurs between mothers and newborns. He pointed out the hidden language of the newborn, and how influential it becomes over the mother’s schedule, emotions, and well being.

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This physical attachment is so strong, it is the Baby’s Apgar Score that may determine the Mother’s risk of being admitted for Intensive Care, after delivery.

If you are looking for some everyday evidence of this, consider the different reactions that occur between Mom and Dad, when the baby cries in the middle of the night.

If Dad wakes up at all, it is never with the same sense of urgency or concern, compared to Mom.

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These early bonding experiences are incredibly powerful for both the child and parent. We have historical accounts where orphaned infants died due to a lack of these important attachment relationships. These deaths occurred despite all of their physical necessities being provided, termed Anaclitic Depression.

We don’t stay little forever, and what starts out as one powerful relationship, soon turns into many.

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Over time, we form new attachments to others inside of our family, and beyond. And each of these new intimate interactions has the ability to continue to produce Oxytocin, contributing to a sense of ‘being connected’.

The warmth we feel, when around close friends and family, is a left over echo, of the time when we were helpless, and someone took care of everything.

Studies have demonstrated that a 20 second hug, releases bound Oxytocin (both in Hormone, and Neurotransmitter form), acting like a natural antidepressant, and contributing to the feeling of love.

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So next time you hug someone, squeeze a little longer.

More recent studies have shed new light on the parts of the brain involved, when we feel these ‘close connection’ feelings.

The regulator for Oxytocin, is a chemical called ANANDAMIDE, also known as the ‘bliss molecule’.

This molecule likes to bind to receptors in the ENDOCANNABINOID family. You may notice that the end of that long word contained the word ‘cannabinoid‘.

These findings have lead to our understanding that increasing Anandamide, causes us to experience more pleasure, when we are socializing.

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There are new research questions being asked in anxiety research, as socially anxious people do not appear to benefit when they are around others. Autism is also being looked at through this lens, as there is often a lack of any pleasure or interest when autistic people are around their close relationships.

What is very interesting is how similar in structure these internal attachment chemicals are to the active compound in Marijuana.

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The active part of MJ that produces the high, is called THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). Compounds with THC also like to activate receptors in the Cannabinoid family.

We have very recently began to take a different perspective on addiction, which has helped us understand, who is likely to get addicted to drugs, and who is not.

Much of this new perspective is nicely explained by Gabor Mate, in his exploration of addiction being less about the addictive power of illicit drugs, and more related to how much meaning and power one may feel in their own life.

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If we go back to earlier in this essay, it becomes apparent that  most of us are able to medicate ourselves every day, through the meaning and importance we feel, with our home, our friends, or our jobs.

If we are invested in healthy ways of living, and feel a sense of connection to others, we are less likely to start doing cocaine on a lazy Sunday.

This notion is supported by evidence that exists right now, in hospitals everywhere. Many people are given incredibly powerful drugs for the first time, and for several days, as they recover from various surgeries, and other maladies. Only a very tiny percentage of these former ‘patients’, go on to become addicted to the powerful painkillers they were previously prescribed.

If it were only about the power of the drug, we would have an even greater epidemic.

There are several populations of people who are especially vulnerable to drug addiction. Certainly growing up in a family of abuse, or neglect, is a well established risk factor.

These experiences can act like a cnacer, that seems to re-grow, with every new attachment. Over time, other people are seen as just varying levels of risk, and it becomes impossible to find a safe place, or a home.

It is these very situations that likely provide the perfect storm of Marijuana addiction.

If you grew up fearing the very people who were supposed to keep you safe, you have to find safety somewhere. And as you start to congregate, with similarly shattered peers, you are also likely to meet an array of powerful drugs.

I can only imagine how a broken person feels, when they inhale Marijuana for the first time.

Suddenly, parts of their brain that once felt love and connection start to finally reactivate.

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And when they discover that the Oxytocin type feeling that they can never extract from others, can be realized by inhaling from a bong, I would imagine that would be a tough urge to fight.

Drug addiction, at least in the case of Marijuana, may be less about bad people, making bad choices, and more about broken people trying to reattach themselves.

Simon Trepel, MD

Check out his Blog, called Simon Says Psych Stuff.

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2 thoughts on “Marijuana and Attachment #Oxytocin

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