How We Become Addicted

How We Become Addicted

The word addiction comes from the Latin term for “enslaved by” and rightly so, millions of people are enslaved by their fix, whether it be controlled substances, food, alcohol, sex, gambling or even the internet. We all have that one thing that we just can’t live without.  How or why do we become addicted and what can you do to help?  Addiction is a serious global concern and in some countries addiction rates, especially to illicit drugs, are a serious and growing concern.  In the United States for example, substance abuse is one of the leading causes of death, with a substantial percentage of the American population addicted to illicit drugs. Iran has one of the world’s highest drug addiction rates, as there’s a huge heroin epidemic in that country.  Whereas the United Kingdom is the world’s largest abuser of alcohol and France is the country most addicted to prescription drugs.

For a long time scientists believed that only alcohol and powerful drugs could cause addiction.  Using advanced Neuroimaging techniques it has recently become apparent that a whole array of pleasurable activities, such as gambling, shopping, sex, video games, the internet and many others, can also trigger strong addictions.  Also in the 1930s, when research on addiction first began, it was believed that addiction was caused by a lack of will power and only affected weak minded or morally flawed individuals.  So, instead of helping addicts to overcome their addiction, they would often punish them instead.  Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work.  Recently the scientific consensus has changed.  Today addiction is recognized as a chronic disease that actually changes the structure and function of the brain. The more we exercise addictions and take pleasure from them, the more they take over the brain and change it so that we crave those things even more in the future.

Addiction really is a vicious cycle.  Different addictions may show different symptoms, for example a tobacco addiction has slightly different symptoms then a gambling addiction. Someone addicted to nicotine or any other substance, will usually experience strong physiological symptoms such as headaches, nausea and fatigue.  Conversely, people addicted to activities such as gambling will experience more mental symptoms, such as being overly secretive, lying to their friends/family and continuing to gamble even when they can’t afford to.  However, despite the difference in symptoms, what actually causes these addictions is thought to be extremely similar.

The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, no matter what the cause, whether it be substances, drink, food or activities.  A set of chemical processes in the brain that make one feel that pleasure, are the same. Mostly, it is caused by the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells underneath the cerebral cortex.  This area of the brain is so closely linked to pleasure that neuroscientists call it the brain’s ‘pleasure center’.  The likelihood of us getting addicted to a particular thing all depends on how fast it increases the dopamine levels in our brain.  For example, drinking coffee causes our nucleus accumbens to release dopamine slowly and steadily, so it’s highly unlikely to cause addiction, although not impossible. Whereas drugs such as nicotine, meth, cocaine and heroin, etc. all cause a powerful and very rapid release of dopamine in our brain.

When this happens, another part of our brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming memories, creates new memories of the rapid sense of satisfaction, creating an eternal link in our brains between the drug and a feeling of intense pleasure.  Since our body likes to feel pleasure, another part of our brain, the amygdala, creates a permanent positive response to certain stimuli related to our addiction.  So, say with the smell of cigarette smoke, when an addict smells it they may crave a cigarette.  Regular smokers might find the smell of cigarette smoke intensely pleasurable, while non-smokers find it unpleasant.

The most dangerous part of addiction is how our brains build up tolerance.  In nature dopamine is hard to come by and requires a significant effort to achieve.  Whereas drugs and other addictions provide us with a short cut.  Drugs can provide our brain with up to ten times as much dopamine as anything that can be found in nature.  Our brain hasn’t yet developed to withstand such an overload of dopamine release.  To protect our brain receptors from becoming overloaded, over time our brain turns down the volume on its receptors, making them significantly less receptive to future dopamine releases.  This has a devastating affect because the addict will now have to increase their dosage to feel the same amount of pleasure they did the previous times.  Every time an addict indulges a fix, successive and future doses may have to be increased to maintain a high.  A vicious cycle that gets exponentially worse, until the body can’t take the dosage anymore and it breaks down.

What are some things we can use to overcome addiction?   Firstly, one must acknowledge the addiction. Many people are in denial about their addiction or simply don’t realize that they actually have one. There are some simple questions you can ask yourself to test for an addiction:  Do you use a substance or do something that brings you pleasure a lot more often then you did in the past?  Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when you haven’t used the substance or engaged in the activity for a while?  Have you ever lied to someone about your use of the substance or the extent of your behaviors?  If you have come to believe that you have an addiction, what do you do next?

It is important to establish why you want to quit.  Write down a list of all the reasons why you should quit and look at it every day.  For example, if you’re addicted to smoking, you could write, “I will have healthier lungs”.  You now have a set of goals to work towards.  Next set a date that you will quit, you can set it in 2 weeks or 2 months time but whatever you do, don’t set it at tomorrow and tell yourself, ‘tomorrow I quit forever and I’m going cold turkey.’  Going cold turkey often doesn’t work, at least not for the majority. Research over the years has demonstrated that only a small percentage of people who go cold turkey actually quit, the majority relapse pretty quickly.  One should instead wean the body off addiction slowly.

Now you have a goal and a time frame within to do it.  Next, you need to identify your triggers.  A trigger is anything that makes you think of your addiction and might cause you to relapse.  For example, if you’re addiction is alcohol, passing a certain bar may be a trigger for you. Once you’ve identified your triggers you need to eliminate them, avoid them at all costs to lessen any unwanted temptation. It is important to find something to replace your addiction. Your addiction has been a big part of your life up to now, so once it’s gone you may find it difficult to fill the time and that can be dangerous.  When addicts get bored too often they are at the highest risk of relapse.  So you need to find something to fill that void, try to start a project, take up outdoor sports, or simply go for a walk, most anything will do. The more you get involved with new positive activities, the more you will replace the things to which you used to be addicted.