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Understanding the Opponent-Process Theory of Addiction With Dr. Nicole Avena

From episode 9: Sugar Addiction is Real...And Its Not Your Fault

From the Food Addiction: The Problem and The Solution podcast



Host, Susan Branscome:


One of the things that I think is very interesting about addiction that you talk about, and this is the case with alcohol or food, in latent addiction like I had in both alcohol and food - say someone is addicted to drugs, critical level sugar, food addict - then it's not about eating the stuff for pleasure anymore. It's about avoiding the withdrawal, which is not always understood.


Dr. Nicole Avena:

So I talk about this quite often. I teach a health psychology class at Princeton to undergraduates, and the opponent process theory of addiction comes up quite a bit.

The opponent process theory is this idea that when people first start using an addictive substance, they get high when they use it, and then they have a mild low after the drug wears off, but then they kind of go back to normal.
But what happens when someone's addicted is that their baseline is way low. So they're using the substance. They're starting the day feeling like crap. They're using the substance to try to just feel normal again. And so the high that they get actually isn't really a high. It's just getting them back to normal, and it's fleeting. And then that goes away, and then they're back down below baseline again.

And so it really becomes a situation where people are just using the substance just to try to feel normal. And that's an awful feeling to have to live with every day because people feel trapped. And so that's the crux of why people use.

People have this misconception that people are using drugs and alcohol and food to feel good. It makes them feel good. It doesn't. It makes them feel normal. It doesn't make them feel good. And so it's not that these people are just pleasure seekers and hedonic seekers. No, not at all. They're struggling, and they're just trying to grasp at the life raft and really just get back to some state of feeling normal.


About Dr. Nicole Avena

Dr. Nicole Avena received her Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience from Princeton University and is uniquely qualified to address the biology of food addiction as well as its psychological aspects. She has published over 90 scholarly journal articles on topics related to diet, nutrition and overeating. Her next book Sugar Less furthers the discussion around the prevalence of sugar and the addictive response in our society with 80 percent of grocery store products containing sugar. She is on the faculty of The INFACT School.


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