Relationally-Informed Clinical Interventions in Addiction Treatment

The motto “the opposite of addiction is connection” has been popular in the recovery community for years, but why are social connections so important in the recovery from addiction, and how do they play out on a neurological level?

In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, marriage and family therapist Gabrielle Wynschenk, LMFT, LAC, explored the neuropeptide oxytocin’s important role in maintaining healthy relationships and how to integrate relationally-informed clinical interventions that improve treatment outcomes.

Wynschenk works at the Mountainside Treatment Center as a family wellness clinician. At Mountainside, she facilitates various psychoeducational group offerings for individuals in residential treatment, facilitates psychoeducational group offerings for family members of Mountainside clients, maintains a caseload in which she conducts individual and family therapy sessions, and creates group curricula on family dynamics. Wynschenk facilitates webinars and other educational offerings for community providers. She also writes articles for the Mountainside blog.

Neurological research has been looking at the human brain and its potentially overlapping mechanisms between addiction and connection for some time. “Oxytocin is an emerging area of interest” in this regard, Wynschenk told her webinar audience.

“The release of oxytocin is triggered by various external cues,” explained Wynschenk. “These include stimulation of the nipples and genital areas, during orgasm and in response to prosocial stimuli such as close physical proximity to someone of connection in a safe environment, as well as exposure to infants.”

The functions of oxytocin include bonding, increasing interpersonal trust, reducing anxiety, reducing stress response, reducing immune and inflammatory responses, altering memory and information processing, and reducing the sensation of pain.

Genetics and life experiences both have an impact on the development of a person’s oxytocin system, and any changes in that system have an impact on its sensitivity and the synthesis of the neuropeptide, which in turn can inform differences in relationships and lead to a propensity to addiction.

“Recent studies have shown that higher oxytocin levels are correlated with reports of higher relationship satisfaction,” said Wynschenk. “Healthy relationships have also been linked to optimal health across research. It’s been postulated that oxytocin plays a role in that, as it also has physiological functions such as mitigating the stress response and reducing inflammation.”

Since addiction is frequently driven by extreme stress and trauma, the anxiety- and stress-reducing effects of healthy relationships can help counteract addiction. “In rodents, oxytocin was shown to lessen obsessive and repetitive behaviors in subjects addicted to cocaine,” reported Wynschenk in the webinar. “Similarly, in animal studies, rodents stopped self-administering both cocaine and opiates when receiving high levels of oxytocin.”

Research is now looking at oxytocin as a protective factor for addiction. Since oxytocin reduces anxiety and stress which also builds resilience around triggers, it can help reduce the occurrence of relapse. “Human studies showed that oxytocin reduced cravings and reduced withdrawal symptoms for people detoxing from alcohol and cocaine,” said Wynschenk.