Emotional Reasoning in Addiction—the Limbic System and Substances


Emotional reasoning in addiction sets up a significant challenge in treatment and recovery because addiction and emotional reasoning are constant companions. Even after substance use has stopped, thinking patterns remain and should be changed for abstinence to continue. Emotional reasoning in addiction is a powerful force in the ‘hijacking’ of the brain done by prolonged use of substances.

Emotional reasoning is the belief that feelings are facts. It leads to irrational, impulsive, and immature thinking—all unfortunate hallmarks of addiction. We see evidence of emotional reasoning in compulsive drug use and related thinking errors. In short, addicts feel an emotion and act upon it far faster than others typically do. Their quick decisions tend to bypass the constraints of rational reason, and self-sabotaging behaviors result. For example, addicts repeatedly use even when using is harmful, or even when they are desperate to stop. Emotions they feel to be negative and adverse cause them to choose use over other coping strategies. They feel and then act.

Overcoming emotional reasoning is a challenge in treatment. However, it is essential if one is to have a good chance to sustain recovery. Preventing relapse requires us to employ more rationally based thinking, coping, problem-solving, and decision-making. We must learn to use logical thought more often than we react emotionally. We must learn to feel feelings without doing something to harm ourselves. This means, too, that we have to soothe ourselves without substances when we feel something we don’t want to feel. Basically, we have to learn how to work through a thought process by delaying an urge to avoid tension or discomfort.

The Limbic System—the Emotional Switchboard

Emotional reasoning may seem like a series of willful choices to remain immature, avoiding the responsibilities and rigors of adulthood. However, emotional reasoning in addiction is the result of brain changes caused by toxic exposure to chemicals. While there are many brain effects caused by addiction, the impact of substance use upon the limbic system within the brain is particularly dramatic, causing pervasive and negative effects in an addict’s life.

The limbic system is a region of the brain just on top of the brainstem. It is comprised of multiple structures that are involved in a range of functions such as survival-based mechanisms; motivation; fear, anger, and other emotions; and sexual feelings. Some of the structures of the limbic system and their specific functions are the:

  • Amygdala—the amygdala is involved in emotional reactions such as those involved in fear conditioning, or the process of learning to be afraid in a particular situation, of particular things, or particular people. The amygdala is active during aggression as well since fear, anxiety, and aggression are tied together in a survival response. This brain region is responsible for the survival responses of ‘fight or flight’. In addiction, withdrawal symptoms are associated with fear of discomfort and pain, for example. The need to use again to prevent the pain of withdrawal can feel like a matter of survival to someone who is addicted.
  • Hippocampus—the hippocampus forms, organizes and stores memories, essentially functioning as a memory indexer, but it also attaches emotions to memories. Since our memories help us recall feeling states, the hippocampus is important in our present, everyday experience. For example, people with unresolved traumatic experiences may continue to live with terror or horror long after the events have passed because they recall the experiences. Similarly, our happy memories can help enrich happiness in the present moment when they are recalled. If we have ‘euphoric recall’ about substance use, we tend to only associate euphoria with using and don’t remember the negative aspects of use, for example.
  • Hypothalamus—the hypothalamus is responsible for helping the body maintain balance, or homeostasis, by reducing stress in various systems. For example, it is involved in hunger, thirst, emotions, the sex drive, blood pressure, and body temperature. In addiction, the hypothalamus is not able to reduce the stress of withdrawal as resuming substance use would. Consequently, the risk of using again when having withdrawal symptoms is high.
  • Thalamus—the thalamus receives sensory information (except smell) and passes it along to other areas of the brain to be interpreted into perceptions. It serves as a relay station between the spinal cord and the brain, helping us to sense information from the body and to make meaning of what we sense. For example, addiction can increase the perception of pain, causing addicts to be sensitive to even low levels of pain and to perceive a need for pain medication when others could manage that level of pain without medication.
  • Cingulate Gyrus—the cingulate gyrus helps coordinate sensory information with our emotions. It is also involved in regulating aggression, and emotional communication as well as how we respond emotionally to pain. Addicts tend to have greater reactivity to pleasurable sensations and to be prone to higher risks behaviors that are perceived as pleasurable.

While the above is a simplified and incomplete list of the structures and functions of the human limbic system, keep in mind that it is a complex brain system, and addiction causes complex alterations in its functioning. Effective addiction treatment and recovery help heal the limbic system.

Calming the Limbic System in Addiction Treatment

The process of addiction treatment and recovery reclaims the brain from the effects of substances. There is always

the unfortunate chance that some brain changes caused by prolonged or heavy use cannot be reversed. However, more typically, withdrawal and detox clear the system, preparing the stage for healing. Prone to quick reactions, anxiety, hypersensitivity, emotional dysregulation, cravings, euphoric recall, and compulsive behavior, people with addictions need time well past detox to heal at deeper levels to prevent relapse. Some helpful strategies for calming the limbic system available in addiction treatment programs include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—this therapy helps identify thoughts that trigger emotions and behavior. False or distorted beliefs can be replaced with more helpful ones and trigger less stressful emotions. This therapy helps people in recovery to engage in more rational reasoning rather than continuing the patterns of emotional reasoning in addiction.
  • Stress Management–stress management techniques help teach self-calming and self-soothing without substance use. The limbic system is less activated by anxiety and fear as people learn to reduce their stress levels.
  • Anger Management—anger management incorporates stress management and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to lower anxiety, fear, anger, and aggression. The limbic system can reduce time spent in hyper-activated fight mode.
  • Group experiences—group experiences in which there is mutual support and problem-solving, validation from others, and shared experiences, increase a sense of belonging, decrease loneliness, and increase a sense of security and safety.
  • Supportive counselling—being able to build a trusting counseling relationship, discuss thoughts, feelings, and issues, and receive feedback, lessens alienation, increases optimism and hope, and improves a sense of personal empowerment.

Other Activities to Help the Limbic System Heal

As one recovers from addiction, a process of replacing the emotional reasoning in addiction with more helpful thought patterns is very healing. As stress, tension, and emotionality is better managed, one improves the chances of remaining sober. Also, the limbic system is given an opportunity to resume balance, working less to deal with anxiety, fear, anger, and aggressive impulses.

As the limbic system is restored, compulsive behavior becomes less of a coping strategy. The mind has time to use rational thinking more often, and consequently, behavior can be a choice rather than a product of impulse. Healing the limbic system is a multi-layered process involving self-reflection and processing with counselors, therapists, and other recovery supports. It also involves practice.

There are many activities that help heal the limbic system after addiction. Any activity that reduces stress, tension, fear, anxiety, worry, anger, and aggression can be healing. Also, activities that enhance a sense of safety, security, well-being, optimism, connectedness, relaxation, and compassion are healing to the limbic system. Some such activities are:

  • New and pleasant experiences—new, positive experiences help build pleasant memories. Expectation and anticipation of pleasant experiences is enlivening, and restorative.
  • Medication—some may greatly benefit from medications such as anti-depressants that help reduce anxiety and worry, as well as increase an overall sense of well-being.
  • Deep breathing—deep breathing can reduce blood pressure and the general fear and anxiety response. It resets the autonomic nervous system (largely unconscious functioning) to a balanced state, giving you support from the inside out to curb unhealthy urges and impulses, reduce anxiety, fear. and aggression.
  • Expressive and creative endeavors—expressive and creative activities provide safe outlets for emotions, urges, and impulses. They also discharge tension and provide a sense of satisfaction and completion.
  • Spiritual practices—feeling connected to a loving Higher Power increases a sense of well-being and trust. However, apart from beliefs in a Higher Power, there are spiritual practices that increase a sense of connectedness to others and/or nature.
  • Helping others—helping others requires taking the focus off yourself, your wants, urges, impulses, defenses, anxieties, and discomforts. Helping others is a core principle in 12 Step groups like AA or NA (Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous).
  • Meaningful, orderly, and purposeful activity—having a structured daily experience helps reduce anxiety. People are at their best when feeling they have a purpose and can enjoy an activity they consider meaningful.
  • Body-based activities—exercise, yoga, massage, and related activities retrain the brain to have positive experiences, release stress and tension, and relax deeply.
  • Meditation and self-reflection, mindfulness—such activities focus on being still, being aware in the moment, increase feelings of well-being and the ability to focus.
  • Gratitude exercises—focusing on positive experiences and related good feelings helps one de-stress, shift away from alarming and negative perceptions, and retrain a negative worldview.
  • Social contact—having regular and positive social contact fulfills a need human need. We are social beings and feel happier and safer when part of a supportive social system.