Mental Health Moment | Addiction
Jun 15, 2022
If you’ve never had an addiction, you may find yourself judging those who do. We often think things like, “Why don’t they just STOP what they’re doing? Can’t they see the damage their actions are causing?” We can see what addiction does to people and, since we aren’t the one dealing with the addiction, it seems like such an easy thing to solve – just quit the behavior.
An addiction, though, is a very difficult thing to just “stop doing.” There are areas of our brain that work together when we like or dislike things we experience. If we experience something that makes us feel positive, then our brain wants to re-experience that same feeling again. If we experience something that gives us a negative feeling, our brain tells us to avoid that thing. Addiction is created when a person experiences something they enjoy, like that first drink of alcohol or the first cigarette. We enjoy it, so our brain tells us to repeat it. However, our brain chemistry is very adaptable and so it wants to repeat something that we experienced in a small way, like a small glass of wine that made us feel relaxed, but the next time we try it our brain tries to recreate that first euphoric feeling. The size of that glass of wine needs to be bigger next time in order to give us the positive experience at the same level as the first time. Because the brain adapts and isn’t having to create as much of its own positive chemistry (because the wine is filling in the gaps), more and more wine continues to be required to re-create the initial euphoric experience.
What happens over time is that the brain starts to rely on the outside “thing” to create positive feelings rather than being able to produce as much on its own. So, the craving or really strong need for the “thing” grows more and more over time, until a person can become completely dependent on that thing to even just feel normal, and that initial euphoric feeling is never quite reached again. Because it isn’t, though, the brain keeps trying to recreate it and causes stronger cravings and needs for the outside positive thing.
There are some attachments that we see as addiction but are actually called compulsions instead. The addiction is that physiological need discussed above, where our body quite literally starts to depend on the outside “thing” to function. But compulsions are things that we don’t physically require like with alcohol or drugs, but instead are things we are compelled, strongly, to do. A couple of examples of compulsions are gambling and sex. If someone becomes addicted to alcohol, and then alcohol is taken away, that person will show all the physical signs of detox – shakes, vomiting, etc. But when someone has a compulsion, and that thing is taken away the person will simply struggle (sometimes intensely) with a strong compulsion to do that thing – but it won’t have the same physiological effects that detoxing from an addiction would have.
The bottom line is that someone who has an addiction, or a compulsion, isn’t just making clear and logical decisions about the thing they are addicted to. Their brain is sensing a need for that thing and doing everything it can to cause the person to go find that thing and get some more of it. There is also some scientific evidence that says that some people are genetically predisposed to addiction -- genetics and learned behavior can all work together to cause addiction in some people more than others. Again, just deciding not to keep being addicted something isn’t usually a successful cessation technique.
If you or someone you know is dealing with an addiction, it is probably going to take some outside help to overcome it. Counselors and treatment centers have the right training and extensive knowledge about how addiction works, and they utilize a wide variety of treatment techniques to help addicts beat the addiction. This will require talking through things that “trigger” the addictive behavior, and also will focus on techniques that have worked better than others in the past. Detox can be difficult, and never fun for an addict, but it is the first step toward cleansing the body and resetting the brain chemistry to help beat the addictive behavior. There is hope, for every person and every addiction – you just have to find the right help, have the right support network in place, and maybe even change several elements of your life to help support your new freedom from the addiction, but it’s totally worth the effort and the sacrifices, to live a life where you’re in control of your actions rather than your addiction controlling them.