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Addiction

Why It’s So Easy to Get Addicted, and How Best to Treat It

We’re vulnerable to getting hooked on anything that helps us feel better.

Key points

  • If a substance or activity helps a person avoid confronting painful feelings, it’s all too easy for it to become habitual.
  • Addiction can biochemically highjack the brain’s normal functioning.
  • Only when the underlying causes of addiction are identified and appropriately addressed can it be successfully treated.
Tim Douglas, photographer/Pexels Free Photo
Source: Tim Douglas, photographer/Pexels Free Photo

It’s frequently noted that we’re not addicted to a substance, activity, or relationship as such but to how they make us feel.

We may not even like the taste of 100-proof vodka, but if it gets us high, takes us to a more comfortable place, a less agitated state of consciousness, it could end up being our go-to drink. As long as it reliably helps us feel better, or at least less bad, we’re liable to get hooked on it. And indefinitely so.

As a qualification, it should be added that sometimes we non-addictively engage in something simply to reduce stress, like quaffing a glass or two of wine after a hard day’s work to experience the reward of relaxation or calm. But if to protect against disturbing emotions or feel euphoric, we routinely obsess about our next encounter with our relished object of choice, we warrant being perceived as addicted. Here we’re not simply drawn to our addiction but have become dependent on it.

Addiction is a powerful—maybe the most powerful—mechanism of escape from distressful feelings. This is why, nationally and internationally, it’s such a major, obdurate problem. And it doesn’t matter how much, through minimization or denial, we recognize it ourselves.

Psychological reasons we might get addicted

So what, specifically, does addiction protect us from—even if, eventually, at great personal and relational cost?

Experts concur that individuals with mental or emotional issues—such as anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, post-traumatic stress, bipolar, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders—are more likely to become addicted. Plus, they’re prone to all kinds of addiction, not simply substances like alcohol, drugs (prescribed, over-the-counter, and illicit), and nicotine. They could also be hooked on eating, shopping, gambling, a dysfunctional relationship—or bird-watching.

Even bird-watching could be considered "addictive" if, maladaptively, it throws one’s life out of balance. What’s crucial to understand is that whatever individuals are addicted to, they’re engaged in excessively, so it’s clearly harmful to them.

Still, if avoidance enables them to better cope with painful feelings, it’s all too easy for such evasiveness to take hold of them and become habitual. And that’s when the behavior can rightfully be deemed addictive. It’s a form of ultimately destructive self-medication contrived to numb against unpleasant symptoms.

Besides biology—generally viewed as comprising 40-60 percent of the problem—authorities exploring the causes of addiction have observed a variety of external and internal elements that precipitate it. Among these are gender, ethnicity, family history, PTSD, various developmental influences (such as economic status and living environment), age of onset, peer pressure, poor parental messaging, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, and overwhelming stress.

Generally speaking, though, it’s a combination of factors that determines a person’s susceptibility to losing control of their behavior. Added to this, there are certain personality qualities that also contribute to such vulnerability, such as sensation-seeking and impulsivity.

It should be obvious that, sadly, we’re all subject to addiction. And one or more of the above influences could easily tip us into becoming afflicted. What’s key is that so many substances and activities activate the reward centers of our brain. And it’s only human to want to feel good, to gravitate toward pleasure and away from pain—especially if we’re bored with life or lack the skills to adequately cope with misfortune.

Biochemical reasons we might get addicted

At this deeper organic level, dopamine is regularly cited as the chief culprit behind addictive tendencies. Beyond any particular addiction, dopamine is the chemical that drives most behavior. It’s not simply that it advances what’s vital to our survival—like eating, sleeping, and sexual expression—but that, less auspiciously, its inherent pleasure-inducing elements promote addiction and dependency.

As with the psychological roots of addiction, wherein it’s dopamine that hormonally allows the person to escape what’s negatively provoking them, one’s neural circuitry can be advantaged by whatever they’re addicted to.

Over time, then, one’s inherent reward system is unnaturally augmented by one’s chosen drug or habit. And at this point, what was once naturally rewarding ceases to be so, virtually guaranteeing that the person—no longer at choice—will need to turn to their addiction if they’re to experience any pleasure.

This aversive adaptation further worsens as their organism, adapting to this “unnatural” way of feeling good, starts producing less and less dopamine or reduces their dopamine receptors. This latter biological adjustment, which is hardwired in how human bodies operate, pressures the individual to continue with or increase their progressively detrimental behavior. Regrettably, they’ll feel inwardly obliged to engage all the more with it yet experience ever-diminishing gratification from its practice.

What originally felt like a lucky win is, through their having developed tolerance, an unmitigated loss. Although more than ever, they’ll desperately seek to reestablish the good feelings now terribly weakened, their organism—acting autonomously, independent of their will—has a different motive: namely, to reestablish balance.

And here, our body triumphs over our mind, now dysregulated, involuntarily addicted, and out of alignment with our true nature.

The reason so many experts consider addiction to be a disease is that, biochemically, our brain’s normal function and structure are hijacked, no longer permitting us to exert control over our dysfunctional behavior.

In the end, when we can no longer get anything like high practicing our addiction, we may still be driven to engage in it just to feel sane or to avoid the physical and psychological suffering of withdrawal.

In fact, strenuous efforts to stop may culminate in intense cravings, even physical maladies. “Mind over matter” can’t work for us because our mind has literally been usurped—that is, eventually, addiction changes how our brain feels pleasure. In a very real sense, it alters our personality, now destined to focus almost exclusively on the addictive object.

Additionally, realizing that our addiction has become genuinely harmful doesn’t by itself make it any easier to relinquish it. We may urgently need to feel less dysphoric. But our organism isn’t wired for mental comfort or well-being but for physiological stability or homeostasis.

What works in treating addiction

Only when the underlying causes of addiction are identified and appropriately addressed can it be successfully treated long-term. And typically, this work can’t be done on our own but requires outside help. For in feeling even worse about ourselves when we’re not using, we employ all sorts of rationalizations and justifications to continue our habit, whose now flagrant toxicity is probably more obvious to others than ourselves.

It can’t be stressed enough that being saddled with an addiction doesn’t represent a moral failing or character flaw—or, once it advances, a free choice. Nancy Reagan’s famously glib advice to “just say no” to addiction may sound sensible, but it’s backed neither by science nor individual experience.

Moreover, all available evidence indicates that the least effective way of remedying an addiction is through punishment, humiliation, or attaching onerous consequences to it. How, after all, could such punitive methods possibly work when it was most likely a person’s shame-based identity that induced them to become addicted in the first place?

Given that addiction is currently describedbed as a chronic disease, treating it has less to do with permanently curing it than effectively managing it. Relapse is always possible, so the individual must learn everything possible about how in their particular case it can be controlled.

Various biopsychosocial approaches have demonstrated their effectiveness in the treatment of addiction. These include, but are not limited to, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, relapse prevention training, motivational interviewing and enhancement, contingency management, and medication. Moreover, all these treatments are far less judgmental (which would likely trigger the patient’s resistance) than they are understanding, empathic, and compassionate.

So if you know someone who’s mired in addiction (or more than one)—or if, indeed, that person is you—take heart: Once anyone is sufficiently motivated to alter their behavior, their addiction can be successfully addressed. With all that’s now scientifically understood about its psychological and neurological causes, what once may have seemed refractory to change can be, if not cured, significantly ameliorated.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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