In clinical practice I come across many individuals who struggle with one addiction or another. These can vary from particular substances like tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, illicit drugs, prescription medication and food, to activities such as gambling, pornography, shopping, exercise, and even work. They can be subtle and well disguised by that person and not particularly impacting on their lives in general. Every addiction at some point will affect a person’s physical and mental health, relationships, and overall well-being. For this reason, if you are struggling with some sort of addiction and you know it is impacting your life in some way consider trialling some of the suggestions below to breaking that addiction’s stronghold.
How to Recognise If You Are Addicted
Determining whether you have an addiction is not as straightforward as you would think. Many a time this is because the addiction is part of your usual routine and behaviour and so has become part of your ‘normal’. Also, because admitting you have an addiction is not easy and comes with the social stigma associated with having an addiction it can be difficult to want to recognise when this might be the case in your own life. Keep in mind that many people struggle with an addiction of some sort at some stage in their lives and often flip between addictions. However, recovery is not an impossibility.
Consider the questions below. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of them then you may have an addiction, whether it be to a substance or particular behaviour.
- Do you regularly or continually use a substance or engage in a certain behaviour as a way to cope emotionally, socially or physically?
- Do you use more of the substance or engage in the behaviour more often now than in the past?
- Do you have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have the substance or engage in the behaviour?
- Have you lied to anyone about your use of the substance or extent of your behaviuor?
Recognising when you have an addiction to a substance or a certain behaviour is the first step in being able to break its power in your life.
How Do Addictions Happen?
We become addicted to a substance that we find both pleasurable and rewarding in some way. For an addiction to occur there needs to be a pay-off; at least initially. The area of our brain that is involved in addictions is called the ‘Reward Centre’ and is a complex circuitry of different brain pathways and brain chemicals, particularly dopamine. When we engage in activities or take substances that trigger the Reward Centre in our brain we experience a ‘high’ that can be subtle or quite noticeable. Since this emotional experience is a pleasurable one we can become hooked on wanting to engage in that activity and substance again. Some activities and substances are more likely to cause this, particularly nicotine, alcohol, and illicit substances due to other chemicals in these substances causing reinforcement of the brain pleasure circuitry.
If we continue to take that particular substance or engage in the activity that we found pleasurable we can establish a neural pathway in our brain such that our brain remembers what it was like to experience that feeling and continually seeks it. This is much like a train track that we build in our brains that establishes a path of thinking and behaving.
For this reason, current science recognises addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just as heart disease damages the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. This happens as the brain goes through a series of changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive toward compulsive behaviour even if you no longer want to participate in that addiction. The end point of addiction is that it seems to take on a life of its own. Luckily, addictions can be broken.
Dr Cris Beer
Holistic Medical Doctor