When the word addiction is mentioned most of us immediately think of things like heroin
, and smoking. Then we may think of sex
, exercise, and caffeine.
And some of us might, half in jest, say that we are addicted to shopping, chocolate, or a TV soap. We also think of addictions as those activities that tend to ruin our lives. But the reality is that we all have the potential to become addicted to something, and we can become addicted to literally any activity, and a variety of different things. And how much it affects us is a spectrum. It doesn’t have to ruin our lives, but it can control our behaviour. The definition of an addiction is “an excessive physical or psychological dependence on, or an attachment to, a substance or behaviour, which includes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders (OCDs). The main categories are:
- An activity, eg gambling, internet games,
- Substances, eg hard drugs to caffeine, carbohydrates, lighter fuel,
- Emotions eg love, fear, anger
- Repetitive behaviour, eg hand washing, hair pulling,
- A specific person.
Why are we Vulnerable to Addiction?
All life forms, including humans, have a built-in mechanism which gives us the ability to be motivated. It is centred on our basic needs, which are food, water and air, the need to feel protected and secure, both physically and emotionally, and the need to procreate. When these are missing we have this innate need to find them. This is triggered by the release of a hormone called Dopamine. Once the need has been met, this is shut down by the release of another chemical called Serotonin. This makes us feel satisfied and safe. This mechanism also drives the need to achieve and develop as a person. It gives us the motivation to go to college to study, create things, put effort into searching for a new car and buying it and why we enjoy new experiences. It is the “carrot and stick” principle. When we have experienced something new or achieved something, we experience pleasure – the carrot. Without this the human race would never have progressed to the 21st century, we would be stuck back in the Stone Age. Stone Age man developed a new tool which he felt satisfied with, but after a while, it no longer satisfied him so he was motivated to find ways to improve that tool, and so it went on. We are constantly searching for the “feel good” factor. This is why people who are constantly studying, doing new things, achieving things, and having goals, are far happier than those people who seem to stand still. This is also why we can get bored easily, or appear to not stick to new activities. You start a new job and you are all enthusiastic. You have a buzz at the end of each day because of the different aspects of the job you are having to learn, and the new people you are meeting. But after 6 months, you start feeling bored and demotivated and you question why you changed jobs. The job has become routine, uninteresting and mundane. You are missing the pleasure and crave experiencing this feeling again. It is a type of psychological withdrawal – the stick, and it is these unpleasant feelings which motivate us to action to search for pleasure. In other words, the brain rewards us for achieving something new, but each time we do this activity it rewards us less and less, so each time we get less pleasure. This pushes us to keep trying new things, running that extra mile, or excelling at our job.
Is There a Natural Vulnerability to Addiction?
When we have a fulfilling and rounded life, with all our needs met, we are not prone to becoming addicted to something. Addictions occur when something is missing in our lives. It can fill a gap, act as a distraction and give us a sense of control. We are vulnerable when we have a major crisis in our lives – such as divorce, bereavement, or redundancy. The American Soldiers in Vietnam
A study looked at the American soldiers in Vietnam. It was found that there was a high use of heroin in the soldiers whilst serving out in Vietnam. Heroin would have been used as a way to numb the atrocities the soldiers witnessed and the conditions they were trapped in. It was thought that the soldiers’ addictions would continue on returning home. But this wasn’t the case: the majority of soldiers stopped using heroin when they returned home. This was because they returned to the safety, love and support of friends and family, and returned to work. The system can get hijacked!
What is happening when we get addicted to activities such as shopping, hoarding or chocolate? At some point in our lives, usually in childhood, the subconscious has linked an inappropriate emotion to an activity. It is usually a “feel good” emotion such as love, or security. And as we have seen above, this is linked to the release of Serotonin. A 40 yr old woman is unhappy at work. It’s very stressful, too much to do and her boss doesn’t understand. He is unsupportive and a bit of a bully. Every evening she goes home and eats a couple of bars of chocolate. She has tried stopping but it’s impossible. Actually, as time goes on she eats more and more. When she was a child, her mother used to give her chocolate every time she was upset or fell over. Her subconscious now associates love and security with chocolate. So to get love and security after a day at work she eats chocolate. But just as the lady with the new job got bored after 6 months, a bar of chocolate stops being effective so then 2 bars are needed to have the same effect. In a nutshell!
We are all vulnerable to becoming addicted to something, and we are most vulnerable when something goes missing in our lives. If we can fill that gap by challenging ourselves further in the same area or in something different, we can convert these withdrawal symptoms into something more positive and rewarding. Dr Andrea Haas