Just as there is a series of chemical reactions taking place in the brain of an alcoholic or abusive drinker, so too is there a compulsive-like process occurring in the codependent’s brain. Instead of that process involving dopamine and the pleasure/reward communications networks (as in the alcoholic’s brain’s Limbic System), the codependent’s brain taps into adrenaline (among other hormones and neurotransmitters) and the fight-or-flight communications networks (which also originate in the brain’s Limbic System).
The fight-or-flight reaction is one of the brain’s non-thinking (automatic) responses to cues or memories that spell danger. When activated, we tend to perceive whatever is going on as a possible threat to our survival and move into “attack” mode, completely bypassing the thinking part of our brain. (1)
If you mistakenly put your hand on a hot burner, for example, you don’t think, “Oh, my, it’s hot. I better remove my hand.” You simply yank it off. Many of the chronic verbal and physical exchanges that occur with someone who has an alcohol abuse problem or is an actively drinking alcoholic prompt similar fight-or-flight, non-thinking reactions in the codependent. When a drunk person comes raging towards you, calling you names, you react. You may try to get out of the way. You may start yelling. You may leave the house. But, in general, you don’t just stand there — thanks to adrenaline and the fight-or-flight communication networks in the Limbic System.
The repeated surges of adrenaline required to keep you safe in a dysfunctional home — always on high alert in order to uphold the family rules — cause your brain to eventually REACT without THINKING to hundreds of situations. What might trigger the alcoholic’s (or alcohol abuser’s) negative behavior one time, for example, doesn’t trigger it the next, and eventually, just about anything might trigger it. What worked to keep the children safe or calm or directed last year, no longer works this year. So a new approach is tried and then another and another. This constant high alert level of reactivity eventually becomes a chronic state of hyper-vigilance. This causes the codependent’s brain to become comfortable with a heightened level of adrenaline (and other related neurotransmitters and hormones) and angst. That comfort level then becomes “grooved,” if you will (because the same communications networks are used over and over again), and allows a codependent to experience the unacceptable as acceptable.
Part of living your life will be learning how to redirect your non-thinking reactions away from the fight-or-flight communications networks in the Limbic System and toward the rational, calm, thinking-and-response communications networks in the Cerebral Cortex. It is from the Cerebral Cortex that you’ll be able to change the codependent coping skills you’ve adopted in order to survive — change them to ones which will allow you to thrive!
Suggestions for how to make these changes and for help with identifying the copying skills you’ve likely adopted (so that you can better recognize the behaviors you’d like to change) are found in my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!… This information can help you change your brain’s wiring — move it from the Limbic System to the Cerebral Cortex where you can respond instead of react — and thus improve the quality of your life — regardless of whether or not your loved one stops drinking or not.
__________________________ (1) Neimark, Neil F., M.D., â€œThe Fight or Flight Response,â€ Mind/Body Education Center, http://www.thebodysoulconnection.com/EducationCenter/fight.html