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Excessive Attention-Seeking and Drama Addiction

Portrait of neglect.

Key points

  • Excessive attention-seeking is a brain-wiring response to early developmental trauma caused by neglect.
  • Drama gets attention and makes the brain secrete endorphins, which are pain-suppressing and pleasure-inducing compounds.
  • People who abuse substances, alcohol, or food are more prone to excess attention-seeking and drama addiction.
Shutterstock Image purchased by UCLA CNS for Dr. Gordon
Source: Shutterstock Image purchased by UCLA CNS for Dr. Gordon

Some behavioral problems seem to plague compulsive overeaters and substance abusers more than other groups. Excessive attention-seeking appears to be one of them. All humans require attention. Without getting and giving attention, you could not have a social species.

Getting attention is necessary for life’s vital enterprises and can be the difference between life and death in a crisis. Therefore, not getting adequate attention can threaten the quality and sustainability of life. [1] Thus, getting functional social attention is understandable. However, extreme attention seekers go to unhealthy lengths that are driven by emotional desperation.[2]

Excessive attention-seeking is not a character flaw. It is a brain-wiring response to early developmental trauma caused by neglect.[3] The developing brain observes its environment and wires itself accordingly to survive in that world that it presumes will be like those experiences.[4] Newborns are extremely dependent on getting their mother’s attention for survival. The more their needs are neglected during early development the more the child equates getting attention with survival and safety.[5] In turn, the more he or she develops the belief system that it is necessary to go to whatever lengths to get attention.

How excessive attention-seeking evolves in adults

Brains wired to equate lack of attention as dangerous, naturally respond to it as a threat in the amygdala, a subcortical structure, where thinking does not occur. [6-11] Now the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is like a micromanaging mother, “don’t do this, do that, stop that, go here, don’t go there” can intervene in this, if given the opportunity.[12-16] But as my friend Greg says, “If a dog had wings, he wouldn’t be a dog.” The ACC is in the cortical thinking part of the brain, which disengages when the amygdala swings into action.[12, 17-21] In addition, the ACC needs serotonin to do its micromanaging. There are a number of conceivable problems with that: people who have these types of core issues are often over-stressed. Sustained excess stress limits serotonin availability.[22-25] In addition, hypothalamic remodeling is one of the consequences of neglect.[23, 26-31] This often means that your hypothalamus is smaller, and has fewer receptors for serotonin and other neurochemicals. Thus, even if your ACC has troopers to dispatch, they may not have anywhere to land and do their work.

How this partners with drama addiction

The obvious answer is drama gets attention. However, it is more than that. Drama causes the pituitary gland and hypothalamus to secrete endorphins, which are the pain-suppressing and pleasure-inducing compounds, which heroin and other opiates mimic.[32-40] Hence, drama eases the anxiety of wanting more attention than you are getting. Naturally, since drama uses the same mechanisms in the brain as opiates, people can easily become addicted to drama.[41-45] Like any addiction, you build up a tolerance that continuously requires more to get the same neurochemical effect. [46-49] In the case of drama, then means you need more and more crises to get the same thrill.

There is also another factor. Using drama as a drug feels good so it is rewarding. Reward uses dopamine, the brain’s happy dance drug.[50-52] Dopamine works by releasing more dopamine on anticipating getting the reward (the way evolution gets you to want to do what you need to do).[52-54] Like all addiction, this begins as a goal-directed behavior in the ventral striatum [55-58] (I’m turning on the light because I walked into a dark room and want light), which becomes a stimulus-response behavior in the dorsal striatum (I am flipping the light switch because every time I walk into a dark room I automatically flip the light switch). Once this train leaves the station, you have your classic attention-seeking drama queen.

Is it fixable?

No, it is not fixable in the sense that you cannot change your brain’s basic hardwiring.[4, 27, 29, 59] Nor can you completely erase the residual effects of early life trauma.[4, 23, 27] However, it is manageable.

One begins by accepting who they are, and loving what they have more than what they do not have. This means even if what they have is a challenge and difficult to manage. In addition, find a person who is honest, and cares enough about you to tell you the truth, even when you do not want to hear it. You can ask this person if your emotional interpretation of a situation is over the top. Use creative outlets to lessen your baseline stress level. Meditate. Do yoga. Act as if you are not a drama queen and a compulsive attention-seeker. The more you do that the more efficiently those neurons will fire. Hence, the easier that behavior will become.

I suspect the reason compulsive overeaters, alcoholics, and substance abusers are more prone to excess attention-seeking and drama addiction is because those populations are more likely to have endured developmental trauma. The important thing to realize here is that not all neglect is evidence of a lack of love. Sometimes, people only have so much they can give; sometimes that is not enough. There is healing in accepting that your parents did not give you as much attention as you required. Forgiving them for being who they were is getting to higher ground. Sometimes, you have to give yourself the attention you needed from parents. However, most importantly, at all times, remain fabulous and phenomenal.


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