In clinical practice I come across persons who struggle with one addiction or another. These can range from addictions to specific substances like alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, prescription medication, illicit drugs and food, to particular activities such as pornography, shopping, gambling, work, and even to exercise. They can be subtle and fairly well disguised by that person and not mainly impacting on their lives in general. Every addiction at some point will start to affect a person’s mental and physical health, overall well-being and relationships. 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.
Recognising an Addiction
Determining whether you have an addiction is not as straightforward as you would think. This can be because the addiction is part of your behaviour and regular routine and has become part of your ‘normal’. Also, because acknowledging you have an addiction is not easy and comes with the social stigma linked with having an addiction. 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 a particular behaviour.
- Do you have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have the substance or engage in the 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?
- Have you lied to anyone about your use of the substance or extent of your behaviour?
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 rewarding and pleasurable in some way. For an addiction to happen there needs to be a pay-off; at least initially. The part of our brain that is involved in addictions is called the ‘Reward Centre’ and is a complex system of different brain chemicals and pathways, 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 participate 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 materials causing reinforcement of the brain pleasure circuitry.
If we continue to take that specific substance or engage in the activity that we found pleasurable we can create 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 behaving and thinking. For this reason, current science recognises addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just as diabetes impairs the pancreas and heart disease damages the heart, addiction hijacks the brain. This happens as the brain goes through a sequence of changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive toward compulsive behaviour even if you no longer want to contribute 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. Before we look at some of the steps you can take to break an addiction in your life consider whether you may have an addictive personality.
Holistic Medical Doctor