The Limbic Lizard

The Physiological Basis of addiction & Understanding how to Defeat Urges and Cravings

People begin using alcohol and/or drugs for a variety of reasons. They may use them because they feel depressed, anxious, sad, lonely or to create courage, excitement, to socialize, celebrate etc.

The alcoholic/addict is no different in this respect and an association is established in the minds of most drinkers and users that alcohol/drugs = pleasure/relief.

This is usually reinforced by some enjoyable experiences connected with drinking/using and by the social acceptability of alcohol, and of drugs within youth and other sub-cultures.

However, while the majority of people can use alcohol without becoming chemically dependent upon it, (and a tiny minority can use some drugs occasionally without becoming hooked), alcoholics/addicts are biologically different from other people.

Their chemical make-up is different, so that sooner or later they become physically dependent on the substance. This may result from genetic inheritance, or from regular drinking/using whereby their body chemistry undergoes a qualitative change and their bodies can no longer live without alcohol and/or drugs.

Unlike others, they are no longer able to ? take it or leave it ?, but come to be dependent on alcohol/drugs for all pleasure/relief in their lives.

Eventually, the only pleasure the alcoholic/addict gets is derived from taking the next drink/drug in order to ward off the horrible discomfort of withdrawal.

In fact, the continued use of the alcohol/drugs actually creates depression, anxiety, paranoia and mental illness. Gradually, alcohol/drugs come to mean more and more pain for the dependent person. They have only two means of escape - death or sobriety.

Our limbic system, or "lizard brain", has been left with us from the lowest forms of animals out of which we evolved. Its primitive functions are avoidance of pain and the satisfaction of needs necessary for survival.

Unlike our higher brain - the neocortex - it is an emergency system, which is triggered when there is no time for the neocortex to analyze, compare and decide on various options.

For example, when we encounter fire, the limbic system intervenes in a split second with the message ? fire = pain ?. It by-passes the neocortex, takes charge of the brain and body, and sends a lightning signal to the hand.

It also exercises great influence on very basic senses, feelings and emotions, like anger, fear, pleasure and relief. It thinks ? Hunger - Eat !, Danger - attack/Run ! Sex - Copulate! ? etc.,

The limbic system understands, learns and responds on the most primitive level and is vital at certain times. However, it cannot exercise rational judgment, weigh-up options or postpone satisfaction.

Thus, it makes mistakes, and since survival is more complex for humans than for other animals, we have developed the neocortex to evaluate how best to satisfy and cope with our conflicting demands for pleasure and relief. This often means forgoing certain pleasures, delaying gratification or taking preventative measures.

Unfortunately, however, for the alcoholic/addict, their biological addiction confuses the body, and particularly the limbic system, into associating alcohol/drugs with the principal source of pleasure/ relief in life, and even misguidedly with survival almost.

Driven by chemical dependency and trained by repeated behaviors and habits, the alcoholic's/addict's limbic system learns to associate everything to do with pleasure and relief - fun, relaxation, socializing, sex, food, reward and reduction of anger, anxiety, fear, depression, etc., with alcohol/drugs. Their limbic system simply thinks;

Alcohol/Drugs/Addiction = Pleasure! = Relief !

On the other hand, the healthy, non addicted person has other pleasures and relief techniques to rely on, and generally says, ? no I've had enough ? or ? no I don't use ?.

This is something the alcoholic/addict cannot do. Fuelled by chemical addiction, their limbic system is powerful enough to override the neocortex and instruct the body to consume. Indeed, it can even hijack some functions of the higher brain to find rationalizations for this destructive behavior.

The first task of the alcoholic/addict is to break his/her underlying chemical dependency, which can only be done by drying out and going sober. Having broken this link, total, life-long abstinence is obligatory for recovery. Gradually, the chemical dependency will weaken as the body chemistry begins to normalize in the absence of the substance.

However, the illness is never eradicated and only remains dormant. One drink/drug will immediately awaken the sleeping vampire! Once dry, few serious sobrietists wish to return to their active addiction, as sober life is immeasurably more fulfilling.

However, sober life is not free from the problems that all other people face. Stressful circumstances and negative, (as well as some positive), emotions can combine with dormant biological factors to trigger dangerous urges and cravings - even many years into sobriety.

Acknowledging, accepting and reaffirming that we can never drink or use, through our daily "Sobriety Priority" pledge, and changing our social and behavioral habits, are vital to reinforce new associations in our mind and to maintain sobriety. But we also need other weapons in our armory to stave off sudden guerrilla attacks from the limbic system that might lead to relapse.

Years of drinking/using leaves deeply embedded alcohol/drugs = pleasure/relief associations in the neural circuitry of the subconscious mind. Since, unlike fire, the negative consequences of drinking/using are not immediate, a mental GAP exists between the time of using alcohol/drugs and the painful, real consequences.

When faced with urges or cravings we, therefore, have to close this gap and retrain the limbic system to understand that Alcohol/Drugs = Pain ! We must make the association Immediate, Real and Powerful!

Such a method is called :"CLOSING THE GAP" Whenever you get a craving or urge to drink use get real about the consequences immediately. Recollect your worst memory from drinking/using - lying in your own vomit or urine, the wrecked car, your children's faces, whatever.

Feel the pain, feel the anguish, misery, guilt and embarrassment. Experience these feelings at the gut level and make the connection alcohol/drugs = pain. Repeat these exercises frequently, with as many different incidents as possible. Recall the emotional, physiological and psychological pain. The animal limbic system learns through experience and repetition.

And it is a fact that the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy. (That is why we react physiologically in our dreams).

So the more you repeat the process of associating alcohol/drugs with the painful memories, the stronger will this association become, and the old alcohol = pleasure/relief association will loose its potency.

Even, simply repeating alcohol/drugs = pain regularly to yourself impacts on the primitive limbic mind..


"Closing the Gap" is not about ritualistic self-torture or guilt trips. It's about getting real with yourself. It doesn't mean you should spend your days dwelling on the past.

People who dwell on things go mad. And addicts, who dwell on their drinking/using past, tend to return to it. " Closing the gap " is a surgical intervention and should be used for selective re-training of our limbic response system. It is a tool to help us get on with living the present, as powerfully as possible.

You can do this on your own and employ this tool, by yourself, whenever you are challenged by an urge, craving or even a negative thought about sobriety.

You will build up these sobriety skills gradually. Experiment to see which are the most effective for you and ask others for advice, ideas and support. If you get an urge at a particular place- a party, dinner, bar, concert, just sitting at home, whatever- get the hell out of there immediately !

Furthermore, if you are having a difficult time, don't just depend on yourself, pick up the phone, get to a meeting or to friends - get out of drinking/using situations or moods and get to sober associations and points of support as soon as possible.

The Recovery Network, "helping to support those affected by addiction"