The word “addiction” is used more commonly today than ever before. While it may refer to somewhat benign behaviors, like drinking coffee or watching a favorite television show, it can also refer to a dangerous obsession with a self-destructive substance or behavior.
Some medical professionals believe addiction is a psychological condition, while others claim it’s a physiological problem. As a topic that attracts so much controversy and debate, it’s easy to see why the true meaning of addiction may be unclear. Is addiction a physical disease? How does it develop? Is it hereditary? Can it be cured? All of these are common questions that tend to have complex answers.
Most medical professionals agree that addiction is a chronic, compulsive dependence on either a behavior or a substance. While commonly associated with drug and alcohol abuse, addiction can also refer to dependence on things like sex, food, gambling, coffee, smoking, shopping, or even behaviors like exercise and tanning. Regardless of the substance or behavior, an addiction is usually destructive and degenerative in nature. Someone with an addiction is typically unable to control how often or how much he uses his drug of choice or performs his addictive behavior.
The symptoms of addiction will vary depending on the individual and the substance or behavior of choice. However, most addictions can be identified by a specific set of characteristics that occur either suddenly or over a period of time:
- Increased use of or obsession with preferred substance (getting it, using it, and getting more when it runs out)
- Change of lifestyle, social activities, or friendships in order to accommodate use or addictive behavior
- Loss of interest in hobbies, goals, or activities that normally bring joy
- Alienation from close family members and friends who may be able to detect a problem
- Negative personal or professional consequences that result from dependence on addictive behavior or substance
- Loss of control over frequency or quantity of use
- Repeated failed attempts to control or eliminate addictive behavior
While this list is not exhaustive, an addicted person will most often exhibit several of these traits. In order to truly diagnose an addiction, it helps to learn more about the individual’s preferred substance or behavior. For example, someone with a cocaine addiction will likely exhibit vastly different behavior than someone with a heroin addiction. Many medical professionals also agree that addicts become skilled at hiding their behavior, so as to maintain access to their addiction and perpetuate the addictive lifestyle. Therefore, it’s not always easy to spot addictive behavior from the outside.
Many addicts are blamed for having a lack of willpower to overcome their addictive behaviors. However, science has shown that that an addicted person’s brain follows certain patterns that can trigger both a physiological and psychological dependence, even after just one experience with the drug or behavior of choice. With addiction, the parts of the brain that control motivation, mood, reward, and inhibitory concentration are stimulated to create an intensely pleasurable response to the drug or behavior of choice. Many medical professionals believe that certain individuals are prone toward addiction because of their unique brain chemistry, while other doctors argue that addiction can happen to anyone.
Most experts agree, however, that addiction is usually not only caused by physiological responses in the brain. Factors like heredity, environment, mental health, and diet may also play a significant role in the onset and development of addiction. In fact, several factors are usually involved, which can make addiction a difficult condition to both prevent and treat.
Progression of Addiction
While not all addictions result in negative consequences or destructive behavior, most follow a pattern of negative progression. In the first stage, the person experiments with the drug or behavior of choice. He may or may not have a positive experience, but the brain records the activity and the memory of use.
Next, the user finds his or her self returning to the substance or behavior more frequently and finding pleasure and satisfaction from using. In this stage, the brain is forming a conditioned positive response to the behavior.
In the chronic stage of addiction, the person will continue to use the substance or perform the behavior—despite negative consequences—in order to achieve the same positive response he once experienced with the drug or behavior. Now, however, the positive response may be absent. The good feelings, whether physical or emotional, associated with using may not be present at all. At this point, many doctors argue that the addict is acting on involuntary messages from his brain chemistry, trying to repeat the “high” he once achieved to give the brain the reward and pleasure it seeks.
Since addiction is considered a mind-body disease, it is often treated with traditional methods such as drug therapy and psychiatric counseling. Inpatient or outpatient addiction rehabilitation programs are common starting points for many addicts. Many doctors also recommend 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, etc. There are also several medications available to treat drug addiction, and these are taken under a physician’s guidance, often for many years of maintenance treatment. Less traditional medical treatments include brain stimulation therapies like electroconvulsive therapy or vagus nerve stimulation, though these are generally targeted towards people with dual diagnoses, like drug addiction and depression.
In general, it is thought that addiction cannot necessarily be cured, only managed. For best results, medical professionals usually recommend a combination of lifestyle and behavior changes in addition to medical-based therapies. Moreover, an addict must be willing to change his behavior, stop using, and seek help before the process of recovery can even begin.