It can be helpful to try to understand complex phenomena such as addiction through the means of an analogy.
In this post, we see whether the idea of the ‘cobra effect’ can shed any light on addiction.
The cobra effect is a metaphor which comes from a story. The story is as follows:
While India was under British rule, there was a problem with cobras. These deadly snakes were multiplying like rabbits, and it came to the attention of the British.
The British decided to take action. They introduced a bounty for cobras: anyone who could produce a cobra, preferably dead, would receive a certain amount of money.
Initially, the bounty worked wonders. Hundreds of cobras were brought in, and large amounts were paid out in bounty.
However, as more and more cobras were being brought in, and the British were having to pay out larger and larger sums, they began to realise that they were being hoodwinked.
Enterprising Indians, realising the foolishness of the bounty system, took it upon themselves to breed cobras, and were being paid handsomely for their trouble.
Once the British realised this, they quickly scrapped the bounty. As a consequence, all of these cobras that were being bred by the Indians were released into the wild.
The net result? The population of cobras increased dramatically.
This story gave rise to the so-called ‘cobra effect’. The cobra effect refers to a situation in which a solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse.
In this case, the solution – creating a bounty – ended up making the problem – the number of cobras – significantly worse. Therefore, the solution was not a good solution at all, despite appearing to be a good one initially.
Substance abuse is the ‘solution’, analogous to the bounty. Like the bounty, substance abuse may be an appealing solution, but it is not a good one.
We should treat analogies like this with a certain amount of scepticism. People are always going to try to come up with analogies to explain complex phenomena – that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re helpful.
However, this analogy does seem to have some merit. From the outside, it seems so obvious that substances are a bad solution for poor mental health. And yet, so many people turn to them as means of self-medicating.
What is it about substances that make people believe they can use them to solve their mental health problems? Do people really believe they can use substances to treat their mental health issues, or do they just like using them?
Whatever the answers to these questions are, there is definitely some similarity between the idea of the bounty as an attractive solution to the cobra problem, and the idea of substances as an attractive solution to the issue of mental health.
I want to come back to this idea of why people choose to use substances to deal with their mental health issues.
I would argue that no one who abuses substances really believes that the substance they are abusing is a long-term solution to their depression, anxiety and so on.
Substances are all about the short-term: that immediate hit, that freedom from responsibility.
When someone with good mental health abuses substances, they will gain some short-term pleasure from it. But when someone with bad mental health abuses substances, the difference between their previous, sober state, and their substance-induced state, maybe even greater.
By this, I mean that someone who is depressed already feels terrible – to then replace that with the short-term feeling of elation which accompanies certain substances, constitutes a massive change in their mental state.
Yes, it’s only temporary, and the comedown will be even worse for the person with poor mental health, but it’s very difficult to see beyond the short-term when one is suffering from mental health problems.
In just the same way, it’s difficult to plan for the future when you are in pain – your body only allows you to focus on the unpleasant thing you are going through at this specific moment.
This, I would argue, is why people with poor mental health abuse substances. If you give someone who is in pain the opportunity to get rid of that pain in an instant, most of the time they will take it, even if they know that the pain will be worse in the future.
We need to instil long-term thinking in those who are suffering from a combination of mental health problems and substance abuse problems.
This is easier said than done. The effects of improving lifestyle, for instance, may not be felt immediately.
And yet, the research suggests that methods such as eating healthier, sleeping better and exercising more are very effective in treating mental health problems, and by extension addiction problems.
The question then is: How do we instil this long-term thinking?
It is not enough simply to tell people what is good for them. It needs to be reinforced over and over again in order for the point to stick.
This is why things like therapy and support groups are necessary. The more a message is repeated, the more it is likely to have an effect.
Even if someone knows how to look after themselves, they may need help to do so. Addiction is a potent force and cannot be overcome alone. Companionship, solidarity, and mentorship are all necessary for giving people that added push they may need to put into practice solutions that they know will benefit them.
Finally, those in recovery must be equipped with the right strategies for dealing with cravings – which are the epitome of short-term thinking – so that they can take a step back and trust in the long term.
CBT may be helpful for this. Being able to identify negative thought patterns and prevent them from leading to cravings is essential in the battle against short-term thinking.
We hope that this post has provided you with some food for thought.
The cobra effect is a pretty good analogy for addiction and mental health, and it has certainly inspired me to think a bit more deeply about why people choose to self-medicate using substances, and how we can try to change this destructive pattern of behaviour and defeat cravings.