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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Wallwork

Addiction 101

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

Addiction is defined as ‘the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity.’

But what does this mean?

Addiction comes in many forms and impacts people differently. When we think of addiction, most of us imagine drugs or alcohol but there are many different addictions that people can suffer from.

You can be addicted to food or exercise for example, as well as caffeine and other substances that are readily available. You can also be addicted to types of relationships and/or types of people. More and more young people are seeking help these days for their addiction to social media, taking selfies and phone usage as well as gaming.

Science has come a long way in recent years and has begun to challenge the misconception that addiction is a social issue rather than a health issue. As scientific research continues, the public’s view that addicts are a victim of their own creation is changing; addiction is a complex disease that impacts both the body and the brain and should be treated as such.

‘Like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioural, environmental and biological factors. Genetic risks factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction.’

People with addiction issues will often be challenged with the idea that they are to blame for their condition. This contradicts the way that we treat people with a disease.

‘Choice does not determine whether something is a disease. Heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer involve personal choices like diet, exercise, sun exposure, etc. A disease is what happens in the body as a result of those choices.’

When we satisfy our basic needs such as hunger, thirst or sex, we release reward-like chemicals in the brain. Addictive substances we use also release these pleasure inducing chemicals in high levels. Over time, we need to maintain this high level of pleasure/reward chemicals in order to just feel normal. Our brains use a multitude of chemicals to keep us happy, healthy and in balance. In the same way that taking drugs can alter this chemical balance, other things we actually deem healthy can have an impact too. There is a ‘theory that exercise induces opioid-like substances in the body that act in a similar way to chronic administration of opiate drugs.’ You can read more about that research here:

Here are the key parts of the brain that are impacted by drugs:

  • The basal ganglia, which play an important role in positive forms of motivation, including the pleasurable effects of healthy activities like eating, socialising, and sex, and are also involved in the formation of habits and routines. These areas form a key node of what is sometimes called the brain's "reward circuit." Drugs over-activate this circuit, producing the euphoria of the drug high; but with repeated exposure, the circuit adapts to the presence of the drug, diminishing its sensitivity and making it hard to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.

  • The extended amygdala plays a role in stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and unease, which characterize withdrawal after the drug high fades and thus motivates the person to seek the drug again. This circuit becomes increasingly sensitive with increased drug use. Over time, a person with substance use disorder uses drugs to get temporary relief from this discomfort rather than to get high.

  • The prefrontal cortex powers the ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions, and exert self-control over impulses. This is also the last part of the brain to mature, making teens most vulnerable. Shifting balance between this circuit and the reward and stress circuits of the basal ganglia and extended amygdala make a person with a substance use disorder seek the drug compulsively with reduced impulse control.

It is also possible to be addicted to types of relationships or sex. The chemicals that flood our brain to encourage and support our reproduction are wrapped up with chemicals that make us feel warm and fuzzy as well as euphoric. This parcel of chemicals is a pleasant one and people fall into the trap of lots of short-term relationships or a multitude of sexual encounters to keep that ‘high’ going. There is usually more than a chemical reliance going on here and it can be extremely helpful to address this addiction in a therapeutic setting by speaking to a counsellor.

Someone with a sex addiction is described as having a compulsive need to perform sexual acts in order to achieve the kind of ‘fix’ that an alcoholic or substance abuser may have. Again, the human brain is a complex mix of chemicals and consciousness; there’s likely be underlying issues which have led a person down this path which need to be addressed alongside the physical addiction.

‘The person addressing sex addiction faces a unique set of challenges. They may be engaging in behaviours that put their relationships, their own safety and health, and the health of their partner in jeopardy. At the same time, sex addiction is considered a controversial diagnosis and it’s lacking diagnostic criteria as well as evidence-based treatments’.

The bottom line with all addictions is that it’s something that must be addressed and not left to fester. Whether the addiction is common or uncommon, if it is impacting the daily life of the individual mentally, physically or in any destructive way, it must be dealt with.

Is there such thing as having an ‘addictive personality’? Well, yes and no. There are traits within your personality which get passed down through your genes. It is these behaviours that predispose us to addiction (traits such as anxiety, depression and impulsivity) - not the addiction itself that is hereditary. One study shows that ‘if a parent has a drug or alcohol addiction, the child had an 8 times greater chance of developing an addiction.’ Read more on that research here:

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Firstly, being aware of this will make you more aware of your actions and the choices you make. If you’re predisposed to addiction through your genetics, then use this knowledge to make more informed decisions. Secondly, our future does not have to be defined by the past; learning coping techniques through counselling, CBT or therapy will make you less likely to succumb to potentially addictive activities and substances.

It is unsettling to consider that we are predisposed to addiction, but you should view it the same way as diabetes, heart disease and other diseases for which we are more likely to develop – tackling it head on with knowledge, healthy lifestyle choices, coping techniques and a support network enables you to create your own future untainted by the past.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction of any kind, speak to a counsellor today. The first step in taking back control of your future is asking for help.

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