BYU Education Week: How God’s love and the gospel of Jesus Christ can help those struggling with addiction

PROVO, Utah — Addiction is one of the key tools of the adversary today. Through addiction to drugs, pornography, electronic devices or other substances and behaviors, agency can be stolen away and a person is led to abandon what they know is right.

Jason Webb, a therapist and liaison for Wasatch Behavioral Health, shared his experience and expertise on treating addiction through clinical help and spirituality, in a class held on Tuesday, Aug. 17, during the 2021 BYU Education Week.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a dysregulation of the midbrain dopamine, or pleasure, system due to unmanaged stress resulting in symptoms of decreased functioning, specifically loss of control, craving and persistent drug use despite negative consequences, said Webb.

He quoted President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who said in his October 2010 general conference address, “According to the dictionary, addiction of any kind means to surrender to something, thus relinquishing agency and becoming dependent on some life-destroying substance or behavior.”

Webb gave an overview of what happens in a drug-addicted brain, but noted that “the same thing that happens in the brain with drug addiction happens with all addictions.”

The model for a disease is simple, Webb said. “There is an organ, then there is a defect caused by something, and then the symptoms of the disease.” For instance, a pancreas could have a defect in which it produces no insulin, and the symptoms include elevated blood glucose, blurred vision, coma and other.

In the case of the disease of drug addiction, the brain has a defect and the symptom is addiction. But already this person is at a disadvantage because “the brain is a hard organ,” Webb said. “There are no good tests for brain diseases.” There’s no way to test someone to see if they will become an addict later in life.

People walk to different classes while at BYU Education Week in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.
People walk to different classes while at BYU Education Week in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What causes addiction?

Every addiction occurs “because someone’s trying to numb something,” Webb said. “It’s a break from life. It’s checking out. All addictions are like that.”

Everyone faces stress, but not everyone experiences the same level or patterns of stress or has the same coping mechanisms, Webb said. “That’s why as a therapist, we want to give a whole bunch of different types of tools, because hopefully one tool might work for you.”

It has been thought that the frontal cortex part of the brain, which controls logical thought, is responsible for addiction. But studies have shown that this is not the case. Instead, the midbrain is responsible for addiction. The midbrain is a subconscious, instinctual, survival part of the brain that does not think. “You probably know it as the fight, flight or freeze part of the brain,” Webb said.

“When addiction starts to happen, it’s going to go to the subconscious, into the midbrain, that becomes automatic.”

So anyone asking an addict, “What were you thinking? Weren’t you thinking about your family?” the honest answer is “No.”

“Why?” Webb said. “Because when your stress goes up too high in your life, your frontal cortex shuts off. Midbrain kicks in. It will do anything and everything to secure survival. Once it has secured survival, it will shut off. Frontal cortex kicks back in, now we’re logical.”

During this process, the midbrain sends out cortisol, which causes a numbing effect, and dopamine, which causes pleasure.

Each person experiences dopamine spikes, especially during happy times. A certain amount of dopamine crosses the pleasure threshold, giving the person the pleasant sensation. 

“The problem with drugs and addiction is it releases so much dopamine. At the same time, that’s pushing this pleasure threshold so high that events everyone’s enjoyed in the past are no longer enjoyable,” Webb said. Oftentimes drug users feel incapable of being happy without the dopamine rush the substance provides.

“The good news is over time [the pleasure threshold] will start to fall” after some time without the substance, Webb said.

There are many chemicals, such as nicotine and CBD, and behaviors, such as using pornography, that release dopamine and can result in addiction. Caffeine is the most abused drug in the world. Gambling is the addiction with the highest suicide rate. Eating disorders, such as bulimia and binge eating, are an addiction with a higher mortality rate than drug use. Addiction to electronics is not something that just youth experience. 

Isaac Beck and Lucas Beck sit on the ground looking at their phones as others at BYU Education Week walk to classes on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.
Isaac Beck and Lucas Beck sit on the ground looking at their phones as others at BYU Education Week walk to classes on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

How to overcome addiction

Therapists have two tasks in addiction treatment. First, to give the addict workable, credible tools to proactively manage stress and decrease craving. “They’ve got to talk about it, they’ve got to get out of the system, whether they’re going to exercise, write in a journal, just talk to a therapist or a friend, they’ve got to get the stress out of their lives,” Webb said.

Second, for each individual addict, find the thing that is more emotionally meaningful than the drug — and displace the drug with it. “That’s where spirituality comes in.

“So if we can replace or give them the coping mechanisms of going to AA or the Church’s [Addiction Recovery Program], teach them about the Atonement, forgiveness and God’s love, then the frontal cortex stays on,” Webb said. “If the cortex stays on, then the midbrain never kicks in, and they’re in control of what they’re doing.”

President Russell M. Nelson has offered this spiritual prescription in his October 1988 general conference address: “Choose to be alive, choose to believe, choose to change, choose to be different, choose to exercise, choose to be free.”

Everyone wants and needs to feel God’s love. “When we don’t, we go one of two directions. We either deny love to ourselves or we seek love from outside sources. If we deny love to ourselves, it looks like suicide, self-mutilation, drug and alcohol use or eating disorders. If you seek love from outside sources, it looks like popularity, sex, cosmetic surgeries, gangs or lies.” None of these will fill the hole left by not feeling God’s love.

“I share my testimony that whatever we’re going through in life, Christ can deliver us from that bondage if we turn our lives and our wills over to Him,” Webb said. ”He loves us, He’ll never lead us wrong. And He not only knows the way, He is the way.”