“Where does the behaviour come from? And what are you still carrying inside that’s making you behave that way? And how can we help you resolve what’s inside you? Not just how do we help you change your behaviour, but how do we help you change? Now that’s what healing is and that happens inside a person. So, it’s never a question of anybody curing anybody else, but we can guide people to healing if we ask the right questions.” – Dr. Gabor Maté.
Your mind may jump to the more visible myriad – like alcoholism, and substance abuse – when you hear or think about the word “addiction”. The suffering, cost to life and impact upon loved-ones can be catastrophic if the addiction is allowed to fester and grow.
This piece begins by outlining the umbrella term “Addiction” from a wider perspective in order to enlighten you on how addictions are formed; incorporating some of the neuroscience research behind our current understanding of this area of human behaviour.
We will explore how the signals in the body become actions in the world, how rewards are received and processed, and how this neural circuitry (or, the connections in your brain) can learn to expect unhelpful, unhealthy rewards that release “feel-good” chemicals in the brain – like addictive substances, etc. And having explored all of that, we will move on to explore “invisible addictions”. You may be familiar with the hidden addictions already – how about gambling, pornography, and gaming for example?
Inside and out, both the addicted person and their family can be torn apart in more ways than one; an individual, and their family can eventually find themselves financially, emotionally, and psychologically drained of almost all resources. Addictions accept all comers, and do not discriminate.
Perhaps you or someone you know has experienced – or is currently living, suffering – with an addiction of some kind; if it is someone you know, they may be coming into your mind now as you read this piece – perhaps with mixed emotions, thoughts and feelings in tow.
The good news is that there exist organisations and caring professionals in this world right now who are ready to help you!
An addiction can, paradoxically, be both a thing we hate and love at the same time. Perhaps you discovered an avenue of stress relief that really did make you feel better, sparking measurable improvements in your brain and/ or body. And perhaps that led to the development of what became an addiction; consider the noticeable effects of alcohol, drugs or pornography. There can often be euphoria, emotional and/ or physical pain relief or decreased levels of inhibition, seemingly increased confidence, that accompanies substance use and abuse.
The innerworkings of the brain and body can fast become extremely complex and detailed. But a cursory explanation and exploration of the basics of neurology here will aid us in better understanding how the brain functions, before we begin to focus more closely on how the brain – in a sense – learns to enforce circuits that make you feel good; ignorant of the good or bad impact these feel-good things have upon the person belonging to that brain.
Simply put: When you are sufficiently stimulated (triggered) an instant, fascinating network activates within your brain. Approximately one-hundred billion, intricate brain cells communicate with each other through electric neural signals. And when a strong-enough signal, from a high-enough number of brain cells can stimulate your spinal-column to a high-enough degree this change triggers a brain and body reaction.
In the case of addictive stimulants of any kind, the release of a feel-good neurochemical called “dopamine” occurs if the level of brain stimulation induced is to a high enough level to stimulate a full response.
Drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, sex, videogames, even work can become potentially addictive as the level of satisfaction, the dopamine hit one gets from these outlets, becomes something we need ever more of, time after time. The brain can be naturally excited and dopamine release can occur in ways that are better for us, or in ways that are worse; it is possible to develop a higher and higher degree of tolerance to any addiction you choose to consider here, which means that the minimum level of stimulation required in order for the release of dopamine to occur increases too.
You may have heard the term “chasing the dragon” which is most commonly associated with drug use; the initial euphoric experience you may have had on a drug can never be experienced a second time in quite the same way; the dragon keeps ahead of you, just out of reach no matter how close you feel you’re getting to the old high. The proverbial “dragon” – that old, low-tolerance dopamine spike that existed before tolerance had built up, and the hits had to get bigger for the same result to be experienced – now requires the unnaturally high release of ten times the dopamine than is naturally achievable; this exhilaration can explain the development of pornography addiction and workaholism, to name a few.
Our achievements and rewards, from winning a game to an encouraging remark from a work colleague can stimulate bursts of dopamine that make us feel really good. Our brains have evolved to remember what helped us to survive, and what triggered the release of dopamine; it has made it easier to recall those avenues at any time.
Addictions develop this way and can become a habit, where all other aspects of a person’s life are neglected. However, before we proceed, we must divorce ourselves from the old view of a person with an addiction being flawed morally, without will power or moral strength to overcome their problems.
The reason or reasons a person may become addicted to something is far more multifaceted than the above understanding allows.
Addictive Personalities, Development and Environment
Firstly, no one is born fated to develop an addiction. There are three primary areas to explore when trying to understand how and why certain people develop addictive patterns and others do not:
1) Genetics, 2) Social Environment, and 3) Development.
On our Genetics:
Research suggests that genetics dictates seventy-five percent of the likelihood of a person being prone to developing an addiction. Our biology can also affect the severity of withdrawal we experience, and also the ease with which we can quit an addictive stimulant. However, genes are complex and much more is at play inside of us than just our genetic makeup.
On our Social Environment:
If we are content, adequately fulfilled with our life circumstances and situation the chances are high that our brains are experiencing the benefits of these rewards, again, through the release of dopamine. However, people who are not experiencing enough rewarding fulfilment from life – be it socially, relationally or otherwise – are more likely to turn to addictions in order to satisfy this unsatisfied aspect of their existence.
On our Development:
If a person tries something that could become potentially addictive early enough in life, the chances are high that they will develop an addiction as our brains do not stop developing until our mid-twenties. The impact of early onset addiction is that the reasoning, decision-making part of your brain that regulates your emotions is adversely affected. As teenagers – on a confusing, messy, hormonal journey of self-discovery – we are understandably bad at making good decisions; we may be more open to putting ourselves at risk, and dismissive of authority figures of many kinds. And in order to prevent these early poor decisions from having life-long effects, early intervention is essential.
For many, addictions can develop as a means of stress relief, for unwinding or switching off from the busy-ness, stressors and challenges of life. Research into the pain-relieving, stress chemical in the brain, called “cortisol”, suggests that it is, interestingly, far more stressful to concentrate our efforts on having a life that is stress-free. Instead, dealing with situations as they arise can keep cortisol levels at a healthier level.
Delayed gratification can also benefit a developing person, educating them on the differences and benefits between instant reward gratification and the much more satisfying achievement of longer-term goal setting and reward. For example, you may know the marshmallow experiment, which involved an adult bringing a child into a room to sit facing a really enticing marshmallow. The same adult then informs the child that they will leave the room for a short time, with the promise of a second delicious marshmallow upon their return, should the first marshmallow still be uneaten and intact. Some of the children managed to demonstrate a great amount of will power and resisted eating the first marshmallow until the absent adult returned, earning a second marshmallow. And others, on the other hand, couldn’t help themselves, digging in almost immediately after the grownup had left the room.
With this in mind, back now to our old friend, dopamine. The way in which we experience achievement is quite interesting, because the working towards a goal releases more dopamine than actually receiving the much sought-after reward. This may explain the low sense of excitement that people describe upon the completion of such long-term goals as graduating from college or officially declaring that they have entered an exclusively monogamous relationship with a partner after being declined many times before; in many instances, the thrill lies more in the chase than the catch.
Seen or Unseen
Whether old or new, visible or invisible, addictions share many common traits. They give us a very high level of relief and release from stressors and pain, but become more and more the focus of daily life as the addiction progresses; the risk of neglecting important parts of life is very high with the increased levels of addiction. Not everyone who tries something that could prove to be potentially addictive will become addicted, and this is based on our genetics, environments to which we are exposed and socialise within, and how we develop from childhood and on. Personal choice and decision making play a part in this too, however the values by which we make our decisions and choices can be largely influenced and informed by the aforementioned categories already explored.
And finally, addictions, for many people, can manifest in similar ways to dietary cravings – for a time, until satisfied, an intense want builds and builds. But once the burning need is met, the craving decreases or dissipates. In all, there are many contributing factors to consider when attempting to understand both visible and invisible addictions.
Visible addictions such as alcoholism, drug use and gambling may be more perceptible to the outside world that surrounds an addicted person, and interventions may come about sooner as a result of a failure to successfully conceal the addictive habits any longer. However, invisible addictions can be more easily concealed for longer periods of time, without anyone outside of the addicted person knowing anything about it at all.
However, there is help out there for you if you or someone you know is in need.
Among the chorus of emotions within us, a negative symphony can blare. The archaic, unkind perceptions of people with addictions still linger to this day unfortunately and alongside others, social, religious, and experiential contributors can cause the person already struggling to struggle even more – to the point where hope seems non-existent, and life almost totally devoid of meaning. If you yourself are addicted, perhaps what began as a practical route to relieving the weight of life or deep, internal traumas proved unhelpful and led to the addiction which now plagues you. But the soundtrack of blame, shame, guilt, embarrassment, disappointment and acidic negativity that may be on loop within you may have been formed not only within you, but possibly from the mistreatment you experienced at the hands and mouths of others who judged you without ever attempting to understand you, or your journey to the dark place you may find yourself in today.
The scientific and medical explanations, and research above can prove to be enlightening when learning about how our machine-like brains work chemically, and how the ways in which we become addicted to things, from a bird’s-eye view, occur. Nevertheless, emotions and the more human side to life must be integrated into our perceptions here, as we are the conduits through which life filters; while also being the acting agent that circulates our filtered perceptions back into the life and the world around us.
And here, I will return to more of what Dr. Gabor Maté has to say about addiction:
“Addiction is not a choice that anybody makes, it’s not a moral failure, it’s not an ethical lapse, it’s not a weakness of character, it’s not a failure of will – which is how our society depicts addiction – nor is it an inherited brain disease – which is how the medical tendency is to see it. What it actually is is it’s a response to human suffering… so addiction, then, rather than being a disease as such, or a human choice, it’s actually an attempt to escape suffering. Temporarily.”
Take the first and hardest step: Reach out for help somehow, because you are most definitely not alone! But just because you are not the only one, does not mean that your situation should be compared to anybody else’s in any way. Each person’s life story is unique and deserving of the utmost respect and you will be seen and heard if you get in touch with a caring professional today.