Broken Relationships and Sudden Social Isolation are Like Opiate Withdrawal (BOTSA via NYT)

An article in The New York Times sent me once again on a journal reading journey. Opioids Feel Like Love. That’s Why They’re Deadly in Tough Times is behind a paywall, but there are many other articles on the topic of the brain opioid theory of social attachment (BOTSA).

Falling in love involves a euphoria at least partly mediated by brain opioids. The opiate mu receptor also interacts with oxytocin, known to build emotional bonds, and dopamine, involved in reward mechanisms as well as serotonin, involved in feelings of well being. These substances build and strengthen our bonds to loved ones.

But, as with opioid use or abuse, the euphoria doesn’t last forever. It is eventually replaced with a comfortable new sense of normal. If we are then suddenly cut off from those we have bonded with, a chemical withdrawal sets in. And it is in fact partly an opiate withdrawal, albeit not usually as violent as withdrawing from heroin.

“Social pain” and “physical pain” are both mediated, at least in part, via the mu receptor. Opiates have been shown to reduce separation anxiety in puppies and opiate antagonists increase vocalization in separated puppies. Adult rodents chose to self administer opiates more if they were socially isolated.

In humans, addicts on methadone maintenance therapy indicated less anxiety about losing relationships than addicts who were sober without the help of methadone.

When we think of opiates in this context, it clarifies both the history of opiate smoking in ancient times and the rise in opiate addiction in modern times.

I can’t imagine there was a chronic pain epidemic 300 years ago, more significant than the general hardships of life in those times. And, similarly, we now know that individuals who fall victim to opiate addiction are more likely to have childhood trauma and psychiatric symptoms prior to their opiate addiction.

So, even though the term “perfect storm” is hackneyed, our current epidemic of opiate use and abuse certainly were the result of such a constellation of factors. Chronic Pain Syndrome, the presumed physical condition we thought we were treating, is not just one thing. It is a hodgepodge of suffering. And the more we learn about it, the less useful it is to try to sort out what is physical and what is psychological. The lines are not only blurred, they are probably not real at all. And the now discredited belief that pain was a vital sign and opiates would eliminate it was only a pipe dream – incidentally, a term that was coined in the era of opium dens, when people smoked the mother substance in those long, fancy pipes!

2 Responses to “Broken Relationships and Sudden Social Isolation are Like Opiate Withdrawal (BOTSA via NYT)”

  1. 1 Susan December 14, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    I have a really great shot that my Dad took, in China 1947, of an opium addict with the long pipe. That man might have been dead before Mao, but otherwise he was one of the first to be killed. What the people calling for a “Communist Revolution”(ie: Sharpton after the Rittenhouse verdict) are ignorant of the blight which will line up all those in opposition to the edicts of the regime. There will be no abberations tolerated. There will be no “SanFransicko” as the current author describes. There will be no sickness,pain or freedom tolerated. Unlike my Master,Jesus,fullof compassion; no compassion will be exhibited by those misled by the dogma of “Heaven on Earth” as described in his book by that name(Joshua Muravchik)

  2. 2 Majority Ruhl September 11, 2022 at 3:13 am

    This is the best way to describe the intense isolation that accompanies methadone withdraw. All opiates create this sense of isolation but there’s something about methadone withdraw in particular that’s extremely awful to bear.

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