by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
When it comes to vices during the pandemic, simply put, it’s been difficult to say “no.” Drinking an extra glass of wine here, eating half a birthday cake in one sitting there — whatever it takes to escape the constant strain of life under lockdown. That seemed reasonable in March, anyway.
But nine months on, when experience has demonstrated that chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes doesn’t compensate for human interaction, why do bad habits continue to compel us?
The prolonged traumatic, or “chronic toxic,” stress that most people have been experiencing throughout the pandemic makes it more difficult to keep desires in check, and it in turn promotes illogical pleasure-seeking, said Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Metabolical.” In scientific terms: When brains are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol on a long-term basis, it inhibits the function of the prefrontal cortex, leading to excessive activation of the “reward center” of the brain — triggering the excessive baking, drinking, smoking and shopping that filled the idle hours of 2020.
“Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter. It is held in check by the prefrontal cortex. When that inhibition is released, the reward center looks for hedonic stimuli,” Lustig said. “Those can be chemical — cocaine, heroin, nicotine, alcohol, sugar — or behavioral — shopping, gambling, internet gaming, social media, pornography.” …
… The preparation of baked goods in quarantine was clearly driven by more than just the joy of cooking, Lustig said. “Baking means carbohydrates and particularly sugar — both for diversion and for addiction. And aren’t they really the same?” he said.
The jump from sifting flour to full-blown addiction might sound extreme, but it raises the question of why exactly people turn to certain things for comfort even when they know the feeling is fleeting.