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Addiction and The Orchid Hypothesis: Turning Sensitivity Into Strength

Addiction has long been recognized to have a genetic component as well as a psychosocial one, and one of the genes implicated as one that might predispose someone to the disease is a variant of the gene DRD4 called DRD4-7R. 

DRD4 is involved in the processing of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in learning, motivation, and reward, and which is also thought to play a part in the biomechanics of addiction. 

More than a fifth of the population carries the 7R variant, and it has been associated with an increased risk of attention deficit disorder, a condition that often co-occurs with addiction. DRD4-7R has also been linked with some other mental health issues and with thrill-seeking and risk-taking more generally. 

You can see why these traits might be bad news, especially when thinking about the factors that might drive someone towards addiction. This is why scientists first thought of the DRD4-7R variant and other genes that are sometimes associated with poor mental health outcomes mostly in terms of genetic vulnerability. 

But not everyone who has these risky genes was found to experience these poor mental health outcomesonly children who also had a traumatic or stressful childhood, which researchers first explained through a theory called the “stress-diathesis model.” 

But later research showed that there might be something even more complicated going on. Evidence has also been gathering for what one influential Atlantic article called the “orchid” hypothesis, in which the same qualities that make a child more vulnerable in certain environments can actually make them better-suited to others. 

While the majority of children seem to be more like dandelions, meaning that they tend to do pretty well regardless of the environment in which they are raised, barring extremes, the orchid children seem to be far more sensitive to their environments, for better or for worse. 

They may be more “fragile and fickle” than dandelion children, but they are also “capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care” and of growing up to be “society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.”

This theory seems to explain why people with another risky gene that predisposes them to depression if they suffer severe stress actually appear to be more resilient in the face of more ordinary stressors, and why children with the DRD4-D7 variation showed a far greater positive response to a behavioral intervention than children with the typical allele. 

After all, the increased novelty-seeking that comes with the DRD4-D7 variant has been theorized to have its upsides as well. Also colloquially called the “wanderlust” gene, DRD4-D7 has also been linked to positive traits like curiosity, passion, and innovation, and to a healthy thirst for movement and adventure.

The upside of these risky genes seems to explain why they became and remained so prominent within the human gene pool in the first place, and has profound implications for understanding why humans are so adaptable as a species.

Having a population that includes both a base of stable dandelions and a smattering of more reactive orchids, who, even if they were raised in a stressful environment and became quite volatile, may have been an asset if their environment was unstable and volatile as well. 

Orchid risk-takers may have been more effective hunters, warriors, and explorers than the more sensible dandelions, which could have been advantageous for a tribe as a whole if they were the ones to bring home the bacon or fend off invaders.

Their restlessness also may have shaped human history, as populations whose ancestors are thought to have migrated further distances have been found to have a greater prevalence of the gene. 

So what does all of this mean in today’s world? It’s hard to say without risking over-simplification, but one potential take-away from this matrix is the idea that the very sensitivity, curiosity, or thrill-seeking that may have played a part in leading you towards addiction, may, in other circumstances, actually be advantageous. 

Addiction itself may be relentlessly destructive, but many of the qualities that played a part in leading you towards it are not, in and of themselves, wholly negative ones. And so if they were harnessed towards growth or recovery instead of hijacked in the service of disease, they could also give you incredible potential.

There are other, healthier ways to satisfy an outsize thirst for thrills than with excessive drug use, like with a zest for travel or a stimulating hobby or career, one in which your passion, creativity, and willingness to take risks might actually be an asset. 

While there’s no pay off to be had in risk-taking if the only risks on the table are those that come with illicit drug use, being bolder than the average bear can be a good thing if it motivates you to do something like start your own business, pursue a high-pressure profession, or push the limits in an artistic field.

If a drive to use became a drive to achieve, or to make the world a better place, perhaps you could join the ranks of the many celebrities and professionals who have conquered addiction and gone on to reach the top of their fields or to use their experiences to help others. 

The orchid theory is just another illustration of something that I’ve always intuitively believed- that our darkest tendencies and our most redemptive ones can be found closer together in us than we might expect. What looks like a vulnerability through one lens could be a strength when viewed in another, and sometimes the extremes that can fuel dysfunction are the same ones that can push us to excel.

If you or someone you love is currently suffering from addiction, there’s no reason to wait to reach out to Reco Intensive. Our comprehensive treatment program led by a professional staff will help you replace your toxic coping mechanisms with more sustainable healthy habits, and our experienced alumni will help you find the community support you need to not only survive but thrive in your RECOvery. To learn more, call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future.





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