How Positive and Negative Reinforcement affect Addiction

How Positive and Negative Reinforcement affect Addiction

While public perception of addiction is slowly changing for the better, misconceptions remain surrounding the complexities of what drives a person to habitual substance misuse. People have difficulty understanding why someone continues to use drugs and alcohol despite negative consequences and the destruction it causes in their lives, leading them to falsely label addiction as a character flaw or simply a lack of discipline. While many factors drive addiction, the role of positive and negative reinforcement is foundational when looking at how drugs affect the brain, and thusly, a person’s motivations to continue the drug use cycle.

Motivation and Reinforcement

When a habit is consistently repeated, it creates a relationship with certain stimuli, called reinforcement. Reinforcement can be positive and negative, but it doesn’t equate to being good and bad in the context of drug use since both kinds are likely to increase usage. Triggers, for example, facilitate reinforcement in people who misuse substances, with drugs either adding the desired effect (a high or intoxication) or removing bothersome stimuli (numbing negative consequences or emotions).

Examples of Positive Reinforcement:

  • Using substances like stimulants to improve energy and performance at school or work, producing better results, is a positive incentive to continue using the drug.
  • Drinking alcohol to increase socialization, leading to positive responses from peers
  • An “enhanced” or inspiring social experience when a substance dulls inhibitions
  • Feelings of euphoria when misusing opioid substances
  • Reduction of anxiety caused by sedatives

When someone is prescribed opioids for an injury, they take the medication at a specific dosage to alleviate pain. As the pain dissipates due to the opioid medication, the patient feels much better, improving their mood, mobility, and ultimately their quality of life while the pain is reduced. If the medicine is misused, they may even experience euphoric highs, further reinforcing the use of the opioid in the future.

Once opioids rewire the brain and a chemical dependency and heightened tolerance sets in, the unbearable pain of withdrawal triggers the patient to continue seeking out more opioids, which leads to the concept of negative reinforcement.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement:

  • Hangovers from alcohol can cause anxiety, leading someone to continue drinking to ease the effect
  • Seeking out benzodiazepines to alleviate depression or changes in mood after a bad reaction to psychedelic drugs
  • Increase In dosage of substances like stimulants to continue producing the same effects
  • Relying on substances to manage social situations

There is ongoing research looking into the ways negative reinforcement furthers addiction. However, it’s been undeniable that the removable of aversive states with more substances creates a vicious cycle leading to substance use disorder. This can be observed in the many people who can no longer achieve a “high” or desired effect from a substance even taken in large doses and continue to use the drug to stave off painful and potentially fatal withdrawals.

Avoiding the addiction cycle is a dangerous game for those who consider themselves “recreational” drug users. Many aren’t aware of the negative reinforcement driving further, habitual misuse. Furthermore, some people may not even realize they are in the addiction cycle due to the constant juggling act of positive and negative reinforcement with multiple substances. Middlesex Recovery provides comprehensive treatment for substance use disorder, even in cases where it seems too complicated to resolve. Specialized medical providers and nursing staff lead patients through treatment in a private and professional office-based outpatient facility where the road to recovery can begin. Contact Middlesex Recovery today to learn more about our programs.