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Understanding Addiction

Written on 11/07/2022
Sophie Kirk

Did you know that 1 in 3 people in the world have an addiction of some kind? It sounds scary, but it’s very, very true. Some of those addictions might not be too severe, or we may have been conditioned to see them as more socially acceptable – like smoking or drinking alcohol. But they are still addictions, and they can cause a lot of issues for you in terms of your physical health, mental wellbeing, work and relationships. So today we’re lifting the lid on addiction, asking you to do some reflection and help you understand the world of addiction a little better.


What is Addiction?

Addiction is defined as a chronic dysfunction of the brain surrounding the systems of reward, motivation and memory. It’s the way your body reacts to certain substances, craving the substance or behaviour above all else. Addictions can also cause compulsive behaviour or the obsessive pursuit of the ‘reward’ that the substance gives. People struggling with addiction will often feel they have no control over these impulses and behaviours, and either has no concern for the consequences or not be able to stop themselves despite them. This includes behaviours that may be harmful to them or to the people around them, or that significantly impact their ability to function normally. Most people are aware of drug and drink addictions as these are the most commonly discussed, but there are many other types of addiction that can cause problems for you and your loved ones.


How Does Addiction Work?

There are a lot of reasons addictions begin, but the fundamental core of all of them is brain chemistry. When you engage in the activity or take the substance, you experience a feeling of euphoria, a ‘high’. This will vary depending on the activity – gambling may give you a mental ‘high’, while drugs can affect the way you think and feel and make you feel good. These feelings are caused by the activity of releasing dopamine and serotonin in your brain – the reward and feel-good hormones – and creating a powerful urge to repeat the behaviour to get that feeling again. If you don’t have or do the thing, you can experience withdrawal symptoms, which can be unpleasant and makes you think it will be easier to keep on doing or having the thing you crave instead. This creates a never-ending cycle and one that often gets out of control when your brain gets used to the input, and you need more to satisfy your cravings and achieve the ‘high’ you’re looking for.

Some people are naturally predisposed to addiction more than others simply by the way their brains are wired, which is where the phrase ‘addictive personality’ comes from.

It can also be triggered by stress. One of our brains natural responses to stress is to start looking for ways to fix it, and more often than not it will gravitate towards the easy, ‘quick’ fixes first. That could be reaching for the high-sugar-high-fat foods to trigger a release of dopamine, to seek out an escape through drug use, or to look for something to create a buzz and make you feel good for a little while. This behaviour is then repeated every time your brain feels stress and becomes your go-to response for any level of stress management.

So it’s really unsurprising that there has been a massive increase of people seeking help for addictions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – it’s one of the most stressful periods of our lives, and many have been trying to cope any way they can, often developing some of these unhealthy addictions as a result.


Addiction Isn't Always Drugs

There is a big misconception around the word ‘addiction’ that we think it’s time to address. And that’s that addiction only really applies to drugs and alcohol. While these are common types of addiction (and the most well publicised), the fact is that there are many more things in life that you can become clinically addicted to. Some of the most common examples of addiction include:

Gambling: Any form of gambling from casinos to betting on horse races can be incredibly addictive. This has only been made worse since online gambling became so easy to access.

Work: Some people are obsessed with their work to the extent that they become physically exhausted. They never take holidays, and their relationships, family and social life all suffer for it.

Internet: As computer and mobile use has increased, so have internet addictions, when someone spends hours each day and night surfing the internet or gaming while neglecting other aspects of their lives.

Shopping: Shopping can become an addiction when you buy things you don’t need or want to achieve a buzz, even if you can’t afford them, followed by feelings of guilt, shame or despair.

Food: Some foods trigger the pleasure centres in our brain in the same way as heroin or cocaine, releasing dopamine and causing cravings. You may keep eating when you’re not hungry, lose control over-eating or only eat in secret to hide your habits.

Exercise: An unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise that is often a result of body image and eating disorders. Exercise addicts will obsess over the behaviour, participate in exercises that are causing physical harm, exercise in secret or keep exercising despite wanting to stop.

Solvents: Inhaling substances like glue, aerosols, petrol or lighter fluid to give you a feeling of being intoxicated.

Caffeine: Caffeine is one of the most widely consumed addictive substances, and it’s also one of the most accepted, with jokes often made about how people ‘can’t cope without their coffee’. If you’ve ever tried to cut caffeine from your diet and suffered withdrawal symptoms, you may have had an addiction even you didn’t know about.

Drugs: Taking prohibited substances or abusing legal substances either by mouth, inhalation or injection to cause intoxication – the most common being cocaine, opioid painkillers, nicotine and THC– and feeling compelled to take more. It tends to surprise people that this includes nicotine, found in tobacco and perhaps the most widely consumed addictive substance around the world

Alcohol: The compulsion to drink continuously, or to excess, even in situations that would be inadvisable or even dangerous. Alcohol is classified as a drug and does possess addictive qualities. Alcoholics are often unable to stay away from alcohol and may disguise their drinking very well.


Can Addiction Be Cured?

The good news is – addiction is treatable. But it’s a tricky thing because often there are a number of different elements that need to be addressed, and not all of them can be ‘cured’, and instead need to be managed. Physical withdrawal is often the first barrier, and this can cause a number of very unpleasant side effects that can last days or even weeks. During this period you will need a lot of both physical and mental support. There are a number of different resources available to help you address addiction, from NHS treatments to groups, talking therapies and even medications to support you through the detox process (depending on your addiction). Holistic therapies like counselling, hypnotherapy and mindfulness are all good things to have in your arsenal when handling addiction, as a big part of recovery is retraining your brain and learning new, healthy coping mechanisms and trigger responses.


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