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When Preconceived Notions about Rehab Are Wrong

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The prevailing ideology is that drug addiction is caused by chemical dependence, but if drugs themselves caused addictions, wouldn’t everyone who tried them become addicted?  What if our entire framework for understanding addiction is wrong?

In a famous experiment done in the 1930s, rats were placed in a cage by themselves with two sources of water. One source contained clean water and the other was laced with either heroin or cocaine. The rats tried both sources, eventually becoming addicted to the drug-laced water, and a majority of them died as a result of this.

This experiment has been the major basis for our understanding of addiction for many years, but it turns out that there’s more to the story. In the 1970s a researcher named Bruce Alexander took another look at this experiment. He hypothesized that the reason the rats took to the drug water was they were in a cage all alone with nothing else to do. In other words, he thought that their barren and solitary environment might have something to do with why they became addicted to the drug water.

To test his theory Alexander created what he called rat park. Rat park is essentially heaven for rats. They have lots of toys to play with, plenty of friends, ample room to run around and can even have sex. The rats in rat park had access to the same two water sources as the rats who were isolated in their cages, but what happened in rat park was completely different. The rats didn’t take to the drug water at all. They would test both sources of water, Remove term: “Rat Park” “Rat Park”Remove term: Addiction Experiements Addiction ExperiementsRemove term: Bruce Alexander Bruce AlexanderRemove term: but most of the rats preferred the clean water and none of them became addicted to the drugs.

This experiment is backed up by real world experience. Most people have gone to the hospital for surgery and been given opioids to numb the pain. Pharmaceutical opioids are way more potent than the heroin available on the street and yet most people don’t become addicted to them when they are administered in hospitals. Of course, people do abuse these drugs–and hospital prescribed pharmaceuticals can be a potential gateway to addiction–but most people don’t come away from routine surgery as heroin addicts.

The rat park experiment points to the reason for this. The average person can take highly addictive drugs and not become addicted because they are living in their own human version of rat park. People with healthy relationships and who are doing fulfilling work, have no need for drugs. Pleasure in their life is derived from the fact that they are leading out a productive and satisfying existence.

In order for someone to overcome addiction, they need to change their environment to something more similar to what the rats had in rat heaven. It’s impossible to heal from addiction in the same environment where a person starting using in the first place. It’s common for people who are addicted to drugs to have feelings of self-loathing, shame, low self-worth and loneliness, and these are similar emotions to how anyone trapped in a cage might feel.

This is where rehab comes in. Rehab is like rescuing an addict from their self-made cage and placing them in a new environment designed for healing. Rehabilitation centers offer a wide array of evidenced based healing modalities including Yoga, Acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, nutritional counseling, group therapy and so much more. Rehab is a supportive environment designed not only to physically detox from toxic substances but to teach people that they have self-worth, that they are loved and that despite their past, healing from addiction is always a possibility.

So in this way, it’s not so much that people are breaking their chemical dependence on drugs, but rather that people have the opportunity to beat addiction because they are changing their environment. Externally the environment at rehab is totally different from a person’s previous life. Counselors are supportive, offering encouragement in a nonjudgmental manner, and most obviously there is no access to drugs. By immersing oneself in such an environment the likelihood that a person will take action to change their home environment upon leaving, by for example seeking new friendships, or finding a more fulfilling job, drastically increases.

Even more powerful are the changes facilitated by effective rehabs on a person’s internal environment, meaning the way that person is thinking and how they’re feeling. Holistic rehab centers understand the mental processes involved in addiction and can guide people to a better understanding of why they might get cravings. Additionally, clients are guided toward a greater sense of self-worth and taught strategies for letting go of shameful feelings around their addiction. These internal shifts are a powerful key to beating addiction in addition to external changes.

Getting into a rehab facility that you connect with, has quality care, and is affordable can be a nightmare process. We have simplified the process, allowing anyone in the US to get the best care available to them, and match it up instantly with their insurance instantly.


Bruce Alexander – Addiction: The View From Rat Park

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