Environmental factors play a large role addiction
A few decades ago, the Rat Park experiment done by Alexander made a big splash in the scientific community, especially in regards to addiction research. Since then, the validity and implications of the study have been explored significantly. Despite the many questions that may be associated with this study, it did bring an important topic into the discussion of addiction that had been, until then, focused mainly on the biological elements of addiction. This was the concept of stimulation or having a stimulating environment. This is a key concept for addiction prevention and recovery. So, let’s talk about the importance of having a stimulating environment.
The Rat Park experiment found, among other things, that when rats were given an environment in which they could thrive, they preferred to drink water and not morphine-laced water, even if morphine had addictive properties. When rats who were put from a restricted and isolated environment into an environment that had everything a rat needed to be happy, the rats stopped drinking the morphine-laced water, albeit they preferred it before that. Now, people are not rats and have more complicated preferences and desires. While rats needed only places to run and explore, as well as the opportunity to eat, mate, and interact with other rats, what constitutes a stimulating environment for a person is more complex to define.
What does it mean to have a stimulating environment in general? It means to have an environment that allows the person to thrive and grow, as well as to stay busy with different activities that are interesting, engaging, and satisfying.
How does this environment connect to addiction? A more stimulating environment contributes to a higher well-being and makes the individual happier and more satisfied. It reduces their distress and provides them with new tools to manage their negative emotions and structure their time.
What might we include in a stimulating environment? There are many different things that may also vary depending on the individual’s preferences and tastes. However, there are some key aspects. The first one is the need to have opportunities for work and education. Some small cities suffer from this, as there are limited opportunities for work or study within the town. An example of this is a town that depends, primarily on a single source of jobs, like a factory or a mine, that quickly goes downhill when the source closes down. A lack of opportunities for education and work lead to a lack of development and financial resources. Secondly, one might consider the need for relationships. All people, even introverted ones, need to have meaningful and close relationships. An environment that contributes to isolation might promote addiction because people feel lonely and depressed. The next aspect of a stimulating environment is access to different types of activities. For instance, having green spaces around to walk in and opportunities for physical activity, having courses or cultural centers, having libraries and movie theaters and even malls are all aspects of a stimulating environment. A lot of attention in the prevention of addictive behaviors in latter years has been focused on creating, for instance, urban environments where young people can entertain themselves and engage in sports or artistic activities.
When talking about not just prevention but addiction recovery, it becomes very important to create a new, more stimulating environment for the person who is struggling with addiction. This means that the person should find new and better ways to occupy their time and foster all aspects that promote their well-being, for instance, positive relationships, hobbies, volunteering, artistic activities, sports, and others. This allows the person to find new ways to feel happy and satisfied without needing to resort to drugs.
A stimulating environment has lower levels of distress as well as different things that promote positive emotions, enjoyment, connectedness, and other things. People have needs beyond the basic ones: needs to be entertained, need to be close to other people, need to grow and practice their abilities. By creating an environment that is more in line with these needs, individuals with addiction can more effectively stay sober.
The Rat Park experiment remains controversial and has had limited testability with people, as opposed to rats. However, interestingly, some support for the finding came from war veterans. When veterans came back from Vietnam, many came back with drug problems. However, at home, at environments that were free of distress and much more stimulation, most kicked the habit with little issue despite the addictive properties of the drugs. It may be important to create a stimulating environment to promote well-being and recovery from addiction.
If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction reach out to the professionals at Valley Spring. If you want to learn more about our sober community 0r you’d like to learn more information, we can help you take the next step. Feel free to read our previous blog about what is the opioid epidemic.