Adult Children of Alcoholics

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Caught in an Infinite Loop? (Part 1)

infinite loopThe term “infinite loop” comes from the field of computer science and refers to a programming error that leads to the perpetual and unsuccessful recapitulation of an algorithm, or problem-solving procedure. In my book Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Struggle for Self and intimacy in Adult Life, I used this concept as a metaphor for the way in which many adult children seem irresistibly drawn to an“alcoholic lifestyle”.  The alcoholic lifestyle can include compulsive drinking and drugging, ongoing destructive involvements with addicted or enabling parents, and the acquisition of new life partners who reprise important psychic themes of the childhood home, including instability, exploitation, dishonesty, and betrayal.

In recent posts, I’ve talked about genetics, trauma,  and substance-related  changes in the brain as the “usual suspects” behind many addictive problems.  They are also frequently the culprits when adult children–even those who avoid substance abuse and dependence–remain ensnared in the destructive and painful relational dynamics they experienced as children. It is well-known that genetics affect temperament as well as risk for mental illness and substance abuse and addiction.  But environmental factors such as stress and trauma are also powerful factors that influence the development and maintenance of an alcoholic lifestyle.  This is the first in a series of posts aimed at helping ACOA’s with an alcoholic lifestyle  to exit their infinite loop, and it explains how trauma-related changes to the brain predispose them to become mired in it.

It is important to know that many adults who grew up with addicted and  codependent parents, whether or not they abuse substances themselves,   manifest brain anomalies that can predispose them to a variety of psychological problems, such as  depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and compulsive involvement with substances, activities and destructive partners. These changes occur as a result  of chronic and severe levels of stress that so often occur in families where parents are preoccupied and propelled by the disease of addiction. The neurological impact of  the physical and verbal abuse and neglect that are common in alcoholic families can be seen  when imaging studies of the brain are performed, and they occur in some of the same  areas of the brain that are affected by drug and alcohol abuse.  For a good discussion of how adverse childhood events (ACEs) affect the brain, see this article: /healthland.time.com/2012/02/15/how-child-abuse-primes-the-brain-for-future-mental-illness/

Like drugs and alcohol, adverse childhood events cause changes in the  hippocampus, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.  Neuroscientists think that glucocorticoids  that are released when children are subjected to maltreatment  attack nerve cells in the hippocampus, causing dendrites there to shrivel and cells to shrink. This kind of damage has been associated with memory loss and depression.  In the amygdala,  which is  the brain’s emotional center, these hormones exert the   opposite effect–more dendrites are grown from the neurons.  The proliferation of cells in the amygdala has been linked to overwhelming emotions, and vulnerability to anxiety disorders. Finally,   MRI studies of people who were highly stressed as children indicate that connections between the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, the three regions of the brain that are involved in interpreting and responding to fear, are weakened by repeated exposure to adverse events.

Dr.   Ryan Herringa is  a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin and an author of an important study about childhood maltreatment and fear circuitry in the brain. When he  was interviewed by NPR last November  about how child maltreatment can leave “scars in the brain“, he explained how the hippocampus, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are supposed to work together.  He said:

“…messages from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex are often balanced by input from a third area, the hippocampus, which helps decide whether something is truly dangerous. “So, for example, if you’re at home watching a scary movie at night, the hippocampus can tell the prefrontal cortex that you’re at home, this is just a movie, that’s no reason to go into a full fight or flight response or freak out”  (http://goo.gl/VEl0ez)

But Herringa noted that for children with anxiety and depression and a history of maltreatment, the  weakened connections between these critical brain regions  lead to a situation in which, “ kids seem to be afraid everywhere...like they’ve lost the ability to put a contextual limit on when they’re going to be afraid and when they’re not.”

Other  researchers who study the impact of adverse childhood events have also found that people who endure a great deal of toxic stress spend much of their lives in fight, flight or fright.  As the ACEs Too High Newsletter explained in October 2012:

“They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. Consciously or unconsciously, they use them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame. (http://goo.gl/VEl0ez)

This certainly sounds like a description of the alcoholic lifestyle to me:  Instability, lack of trust, an intolerance or incapacity for emotional engagement with healthy partners and disconnection from a tortured self through compulsive, risky behaviors.

So changes in the hippocampus, the amygdala and a weakening of connections to the prefrontal cortex constitute an important part of the brain chemistry that underlies  the infinite loop.  Of course, once depression, anxiety and compulsive involvement with substances, processes and dysfunctional partners take hold, they cause further changes to the structure and function of the brain.  This additional damage reinforces the loop and makes it even more difficult to find a way out. This is the way neuroscientists look at it.  Psychologists explain the problem in a different way and have important things to say about the way in which trauma shapes people’s feelings about themselves, their expectations about how they will be treated in the world, and their ability to form secure and rewarding attachments to other people. Some psychologists also believe that there is a powerful, unconscious drive to repeat traumatic events.  These ideas are also important to consider as we try to understand the phenomenon of the infinite loop.  They  will be the subject of my post next week.