What is addiction?

I have spoken to many people over the years about addiction. Those who have problems with addiction and those who don’t tend towards very different outlooks on this. One thing they do agree on though is that it is baffling.

A definition of addiction is:

a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.

This gives us a clue as to why it is so baffling. To the person that has never experienced addiction and is perhaps watching the addictive behaviour of someone else, the idea that someone would continue to do something that inflicts so much suffering is madness. Why don’t they just stop?

To the person who is addicted however, their thinking is very different. If they ‘need’ this alcohol or drug or behaviour, then in order to keep using it, they need to justify and rationalise to themselves what they are doing. This can cause convoluted and irrational thinking, which adds to the distress already experienced.

The term ‘addiction’ can equally apply to inability to stop using a substance or a behaviour. Excessive gambling can be as destructive and painful as compulsive alcohol or heroin use. In fact, all addicts are addicted to the same drug - dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter found naturally in the body. It has a number of functions and one of those is to regulate emotional responses. When released in large amounts it triggers pleasure and reward which motivates us to repeat a specific behaviour. Alcohol, some drugs, and some behaviours increase dopamine release and therefore promote repetition of these behaviours.

Some common addictions are:

· Alcohol

· Depressant drugs such as heroin or benzodiazepines (such as Valium)

· Stimulant drugs such as cocaine

· Gambling

· Work

· Sex

· Shopping

· Food

· Internet

· Gaming…

In fact, the list goes on and on.

So…why isn’t everyone an addict? If we all produce dopamine and all get pleasure from its release, why is this only problematic for some people and not others? I would give you a short answer if there was one. In reality, there are lots of long answers which all merge together and influence each other and impact each other in many and various ways. In other words, we don’t really know exactly. However, we are aware of some of the circumstances that make it more likely that some people cannot drink, gamble or have sex without it eventually becoming compulsive or destructive, whilst most people can.

What is important to me as a therapist is that an open, understanding and non-judgemental space is offered those who are suffering from addiction to really get to the bottom of understanding why this has happened and how to make changes safely, and at their own pace. People who have problems with addiction can often be judged harshly, because all the bystander can see is the destructive behaviour. If we delve below the surface, a very different picture emerges.

In future blogs, I will be looking at addiction in more detail, examining the factors that make this more likely to occur. I will be talking with someone who has been through this and is now in recovery from her addiction. I will also be looking at and discussing the support that is available to those who want to make changes.

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