Filling the Void: Recovering From Addiction Through Running

In 2014, twenty eight thousand people died of prescription drug or heroin related overdoses. How can evolution explain why some people abuse drugs, and how can running help those struggling with addiction?

Natural selection has produced humans with motivational-emotional systems designed to promote the pursuit of natural rewards. These systems use chemical transmitters to regulate human behavior; chemicals create emotional responses which reward behaviors that boost chances of survival. For example, eating something high in fats and carbohydrates would have made a significant positive contribution to our ancestor’s odds of survival because these types of biomolecules are great sources of energy. Eating sugar prompts our bodies to release chemicals like dopamine, a mood booster that makes us feel happy. So, when our ancestors increased their energy stores by consuming sugar, they felt an improvement in mood, which made them want to find and eat more sugar. The evolutionary advantages to this behavior are obvious- a good supply of efficient energy sources prevents us from starving.

In addition to our motivational-emotional reward system, natural selection also produced plants with potent toxins, such as nicotine, cocaine, and caffeine. These chemicals offered a selective advantage to plants because of the way they interact with the nervous systems of animals. If a small mammal tries to eat a coffee bean, it will likely overdose on caffeine, leaving the plant safe from harm. Of course, we know that it takes a lot more caffeine or cocaine for humans to overdose than it does a mouse. For humans, doses of these types of chemicals stimulate our reward mechanisms, signaling a false gain in fitness.

plant based drugs

With drugs like caffeine, this false stimulus isn’t normally harmful. You can damage your heart or even die from too much caffeine, but most people drink their coffee in enough moderation to avoid these consequences. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for more addictive drugs like opiates.

In 2009, there were nearly 4.6 million drug-related emergency room visits nationwide. Drugs like heroin not only stimulate our reward system, but are also extremely detrimental to our health. Over time, a person using a drug like heroin requires larger and more frequent doses to achieve the same stimulus response. Continuous heroin abuse can cause collapsed veins, an infection of the heart valves and pericardium (lining), abscesses, constipation, liver and kidney disease, and lung complications such as pneumonia– not to mention the increased risk of simply overdosing. In short, a person struggling with this kind of drug use will eventually die, one way or another.

People use drugs because of how they feel when they take them- their reward systems are stimulated- but how can we help addicts recover and lead healthy lives? Some think that the root causes of drug use are a lack of human connection and fulfillment in life. This theory stems from an experiment conducted by psychologist Bruce K. Alexander.

In early studies of drug addiction, rats were placed alone in cages with two water bottles- one contained pure water, the other was laced with a drug, such as cocaine or heroin. In these studies, the rats would drink the drug laced water until they overdosed, leading people to believe that addiction to drugs was the result of exposure to drugs. Alexander noticed a flaw in this research; the rats had nothing to do except use drugs, so he designed his own experiment.

For Alexander’s experiment, he built what he called Rat Park- a cage with wheels, colored balls, other rats to socialize with, and two water bottles: one pure and one laced with drugs. When the rats were monitored, Alexander found that they almost never chose the drug water, and none of them ever overdosed. With a community to interact with and tasks to provide fulfillment, almost none of the rats ever used the drug water. This research suggests that addicts escape the reality of personal and social voids through drug use, so cultivating meaningful and healthy relationships in conjunction with setting and achieving goals may be a way to help the recovery efforts of people with substance abuse problems. Here is where running can help an addict.

I have never encountered a more supportive and close knit group than the running community. Runners tend to be very focused on personal improvement, and it allows us to relate to one another and work together rather than against each another. Don’t get me wrong- I want to win all of my races and so do the people I run with, but in order to run my best I need other runners. It’s extremely difficult to run workouts and races alone and still improve. Runners that support and encourage each other just tend to be better athletes.

Throughout my athletic career, I’ve found that the connections you make with fellow runners are deep, meaningful friendships that weather the years like nothing else. When you run with people twice a week at 5am throughout the winter, or every Saturday or Sunday morning for 15-20 miles, that group of people turns into your biggest support system. You exchange knowledge, help each other achieve goals, freeze together through the winter, roast together through the summer, do cartwheels together in the fall, and everything in between. You eventually build a whole second family, with immediate members that you run with regularly, and extended members that you see now and then. You get to know and build relationships with the most supportive, hard-working people who are there for you through it all. For me, some of them have been just as important for my personal growth as they have been for my athletic. I could never imagine giving up my second family for anything, ever, especially not drugs.

For someone recovering from drug addiction, running offers a dedicated community as well as attainable goals. There’s nothing like the sense of achievement you get from months of hard work paying off, and nothing gives you that sense of achievement like running. As a runner, I can clearly see how this sport can fill the voids felt by an addict. I know how they would build the strongest support system they’ve ever felt, and how they would build confidence through setting and accomplishing athletic goals. Running is more than a means to good health- it’s a lifestyle that rewards hard work and perseverance and brings people from all walks of life together in the best of ways.

3 thoughts on “Filling the Void: Recovering From Addiction Through Running

  1. Alexander’s experiments with rats showing that they don’t choose drugs when they have an enriched social environment and opportunities for physical activities is SO FASCINATING! I have not seen those studies. Thanks so much for sharing this, it really sheds light on drug addiction. What a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I thought it was really interesting too! It just makes a lot of sense to me- drugs are unfortunately an easy way to escape feelings of isolation and depression, so if you’re leading an active life full of social connections and engaging work, drugs are far less attractive. A few of my classmate’s posts prompted me to think about the nature/nurture aspect of addiction. If there were a gene (I haven’t done any research to see if there is any evidence suggesting there is) that put someone at a higher risk to use drugs, could a lack of intellectual and physical stimulus activate this gene, causing someone to seek out the reward stimulus offered by drugs, food, gambling, or other addictions?

      Liked by 1 person

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