What is Addiction?

I have focused on specific addictions with recent blogs but this time I would like to take a look at the meaning of addiction in the broader sense.

The term “addiction” can mean many things to many people. Simply put, an addiction is defined as a substance or activity which a person has become dependent on in order to cope with daily life. It is a persistent, compulsive dependence which continues in spite of the harmful effects. This quickly escalates to a point where the person has no control over the usage, and an addict is born.

Research has shown that there are two kinds of addiction – substance addictions, such as alcohol, drugs and smoking, and process addictions, such as gambling, spending, shopping, eating and sexual activity.

A substance addiction is a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a drug so that drug no longer has the same effect, otherwise known as tolerance.  Another form of substance addiction is called a cue. This is the overreaction by the brain to drugs and can be likened to an alcoholic walking into a bar – the pull to have a drink will be extremely strong because of these cues.

However, addictive behaviour is not always related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. Many people can use substances or engage in activities which can be classed as a habit, such as compulsive shopping, gambling or drug use, and this is nearly always in reaction to being emotionally stressed. No significant problems develop as a result of this behaviour because a habit is something which is done by choice, and it has no damaging psychological and/or physical effects. A person at any time may decide to cease the habit and will successfully do so through sheer will and determination. It is only when the control of this habit slips that people then make the shift to process addiction.

Unlike the harmless consequences of a habit, addiction has a psychological and/or physical component, and the person is unable to control the aspects of the addiction without intervention and assistance from a mental health professional who specialises in treating addictions.

It is difficult to pin down the cause of an addiction because they vary considerably but numerous studies have shown that addictions are generally caused by a combination of physical, mental, circumstantial and emotional factors. It is important to recognise that addiction has nothing to do with one’s morality or strength of character. Experts cannot agree on whether addiction is a “disease” or a true mental illness. It is seen as a progressive syndrome, in that it increases in severity over time unless it is treated.

You may ask why someone would begin and then continue with something which would cause them harm. The answer is simple: because it initially gave them pleasure, or had value. The addict might find a substance valuable because it relieved anxiety or provided a temporary escape from dismal circumstances or sheer boredom. In a lot of cases, it was to combat depression. People are genetically predisposed to repeat actions which are pleasurable or rewarding. This ensures our survival, and without this genetic predisposition, we would not eat or reproduce.

It would make sense then that only people with prior positive experiences with a substance or activity are vulnerable to developing an addiction. One would not continue if that experience was not pleasant in any way. Addiction then begins because the substance or activity was once pleasurable, rewarding, or valuable.

Notice the use of the word “once”. More often than not, addictions over time become very unpleasant. The addiction has now evolved from relieving anxiety or depression or escaping dismal circumstances to one where the pleasure, value, and reward is found in the release from the powerful cravings that develop. Sometimes this is called the cravings-use-pleasure-rest cycle.

At this stage, it is only the intervention and assistance from professionals which will aid the addict in breaking the cycle and starting on the road to recovery. This is where an Addiction Recovery Centre like Twin Rivers will play a vital role in working with those individuals who are ready to address their addictions. Twin Rivers prides itself on its intimate, personalised approach to addiction recovery by providing residential primary care, extended primary and secondary care, counselling, interventions and aftercare, in a safe and secure environment.

Karen P