Addiction, what is it? And what do I do about it?
Addiction is not just a drug or alcohol issue. Addiction encompasses any behavior that one continues to do despite negative consequences and attempts to quit. This can be gambling, sex, food, exercise, gaming you name it. I have heard it said by an alcoholic in recovery that he knew he had a problem because he began to drink without his permission. This can be the case for a variety of behavioral actions.
These past years the opiate problem made mainstream news. It has long been a prevalent problem known well to the substance abuse and addiction professionals that treat millions of people a year. Sometimes successfully but all too often relapse is the reality for many individuals determined to overcome addiction. Addiction is classified as a disease but is often seen as a lack of willpower and a moral issue. Programs of treatment and support discuss this issue and teach those suffering that it is NOT a moral issue and that it is NOT a matter of will power but in fact a disease of the body and mind. An allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind. Theories support the idea that the brain and survival system is hijacked by addiction. Understanding that addiction has a physiological component can help some feel more empowered to take steps to treat their addiction. Thus, releasing the shame that often is present when one holds the viewpoint that addiction is a matter of morals or will power. Which it is not.
What is the cause of addiction? It depends who you ask. But a good basis for understanding, I think, comes best from an early recovery support community that sees addiction as a way to cope with the feelings deep within of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, insecurity, lack of self esteem and/or self loathing. It is the general sense of not being ok. These folks feel they were “born this way” and that relief came from the use of whatever the choice substance or behavior (addiction). Alcohol, drugs or any behavior that supplies relief to the individual can become the addiction due to its calming and enhancing effects.
Neuroscience has shown the brain responds to the effects of these substances or behaviors by calming down. It has also shown the brain light up at the very thought of the substance/behavior in the areas that are the most primitive, survival part of the brain. Additionally, the frontal lobe, the area which controls reason, goes dark and the survival instincts of the primitive part of the brain take over. The substance or behavior is seen by the brain as a means to ensure survival. The resulting effect of use; the relief felt, the sense of calming, fearlessness, euphoria or freedom from pain etc. causes the brain to associate a sense of safety to the substance or the action and is, generally, thought to become the brains’ idea of seeking safety. It is not a conscious decision by the individual but rather an instinct for survival driven by our fight or flight mechanism.
Knowing this, an individual can gain a better understanding of the nature of addiction and begin to identify the triggers that set off the cravings or sometimes instinctual actions of using /drinking. This can allow them to better prepare for potential hazards to recovery. Through the use of techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, journaling, therapy, exercise, speaking up in support groups, developing a support community, individuals can begin to put more distance between their reactive use and be proactive in order to maintain abstinence.
For helpful tools and more information, please see mindfulness tools, meditations, movement and yoga, breathing and breath work, recovery tools handbook or workbook, stress management handbook. What happens to the brain with addiction.