Love & Cocaine: High on Love?



This is a topic that has received a lot of attention.  Can we be addicted to love? If you are someone who has never experienced love, could you potentially become addicted to something else that impacts you in a similar way?

Romantic love is one of the most powerful sensations on the planet.  That being said, it can also be one of the most painful.

The VTA (Ventral Tegmental Area) is a part of the brains reward system.  It is located right in the middle of the brain. The VTA is comprised of dopamine, glutamate, and GABA neurons.  Dopamine has a central role in both motivation and reward.  To simplify, the VTA is this area of the brain that receives information from other areas of the brain as to whether or not human needs are being met. This is the area of the brain where pleasure is born and plays an central role in cognition, addiction, and various impulses we may have. Additionally, it is in this area of the brain that we experience wanting, motivation, craving, and focus.

The VTA is the part of the brain that becomes activated when someone experiences the rush of cocaine.  Interestingly enough, it is also the area of the brain that is stimulated when one is experiencing love.  To simplify, both cocaine and love activate the same part of the brain. Just let that sink in for a moment…

If both love and cocaine impact the same part of the brain, can one replace the other? For someone who may identify as having an addiction, the answer could quite possibly be ‘yes’. When working with individuals with an addiction, one of the areas that is often unsatisfying and even triggering is their core relationships with others and additionally their relationship with their “self”.  “I do not even know who I am anymore”, “I do not  know who my true self is”, or “I genuinely do not experience a whole lot of love in my life”  – are common sentiments expressed within the therapy room.  There is often a lack of genuine love and connection in their lives, which is two of our top human needs.  They are often so out of touch with who they are due to the shame associated with their addiction that they are also out of connection, not only with others, but with themselves.  Their addictions helps to relieve this internal pain and anguish, but only temporarily. What if true love and connection relieved this pain? Some may argue that this may create a co-dependency issue, which could also be unhealthy.  However, if one develops their core sense of self and has a connecting and loving relationship, how could this be unhealthy?

While love and cocaine are comparable in terms of how they both impact the brain, romantic love is much more than cocaine high.  Love is like “coming home”. It involves an increase in dopamine and the associated feeling of having butterflies in your stomach.  It is that intense connection that cannot be put into words, but only feeling.  While there are so many ways we can go about describing love, the truth is that there is actual scientific evidence of where it resides within your brain, similar to the rush from cocaine.

So, is falling in love an addiction?  Falling in love includes many of the same variables that are present when using drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc.  It has addictive qualities that get you hooked, and for some this is for life. It includes longings, yet comedowns. It creates that utter euphoria that you may experience which can be followed by a saddened state. Cocaine, like love, promotes increased levels of dopamine in the brain, causing you to feel moments of euphoria followed by the diminished number of dopamine receptors, which results in a harsh “coming down” feeling. See the similarity?

It has been said that another component that both love and cocaine have in common is withdrawal. In the moment of withdrawal it may feel like the only thing that will make you happy again is another dose of that person, another shot, another drink, another line.  Think about the moments of withdrawal you may have experienced while falling in love.  You may have experienced days or hours leading up to seeing this individual where you were feeling excited, anxious and waiting in anticipation.  The days felt more enjoyable because you had something to look froward to.  Then you get to see this person.  The euphoria continues as the dopamine is shooting across the room. Then its over.  You part ways.  Perhaps at this moment you feel heavy, sad perhaps, and are longing for more.  The rush of a high and then coming down from one can be very similar.

While there are some major similarities between how love and cocaine impact the brain, there are also some major differences and this comes in the form of both short term and long terms side effects.  The short-term physiological effects of cocaine include constricted blood vessels, dilated pupils, and increased temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Additionally, one may experience tremors, vertigo, muscle twitches, paranoia, or, with repeated doses, a toxic reaction closely resembling amphetamine poisoning. Long-term effects of cocaine use include addiction, irritability and mood disturbances, restlessness, paranoia, and auditory hallucinations.

There can be severe medical complications associated with cocaine use, that you do not get from falling in love. Some of the most frequent complications are cardiovascular effects, including disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attacks; respiratory effects such as chest pain and respiratory failure; neurological effects, including strokes, seizures, and headaches; and gastrointestinal complications, including abdominal pain and nausea.

Cocaine use has been linked to many types of heart disease. Physical symptoms may include chest pain, nausea, blurred vision, fever, muscle spasms, convulsions, coma, and death. There has also been a lot of research around users who combine cocaine and alcohol, a combination which can be fatal. In fact, the mixture of the two is the most common combination in drug related deaths.

On a more interpersonal level, for some, the main difference between being addicted to love versus cocaine is the shame associated with it.  The shame is often what perpetuates an addiction.  You feel bad about something and need an immediate escape, but this escape is only temporary and as a result the shame continues to build.  Often we we carry around so much shame, there may be a part of our “self” that we deem as being unworthy or unlovable.  As a result we may choose partners that are really no good for us and in essence, we are no good for them. This then adds to the shame because we end up in yet another relationship where our needs are not being met and we are not experiencing a deeply rooted connection as we have been longing for.  Being in this sort of experience will only perpetuate the addiction because there will always be something there to take away the pain. What if you could finally embrace your shame? And, what if you could do this in the presence of a trusting and connected relationship? While this all sounds so easy, it really is not.  One has to be willing to try something new and to take a risk, which is incredibly difficult.  However, the truth is that it is not impossible.  In fact, embracing your shame and moving through addiction is very much possible in both a romantic relationship and therapeutic relationship – both in which safety is infused.

What I have learned in working with individuals through their addiction is to get to the root.  It is to understand why there is pain in the first place.  To understand the pain, we can unravel the addiction, which eventually takes us to the core operating beliefs. Together, we embrace the shame that resides and work together to create a new meaning. In order to give something up, we often have to replace it with something else.

Would it be so awful to replace cocaine with love?