The Psychology of Addiction: What, Why and How
by A.E. Cox

    An addiction is classified as a habitual, repetitious behaviour that is usually difficult or impossible to control. It can also be described as the compulsive need to engage in and the ability to control certain behaviours despite their destructive consequences. It usually brings short-term pleasure with long-term consequences such as poor physical, mental, emotional or psychological health. Over time, most addicts will experience withdrawal symptoms if the addiction is not satisfied. Studies have shown that there are two basic components to any addiction: obsession and compulsion. An addiction begins with an obsession or craving which later turns into a compulsion in order to satisfy the self. Constant feelings of guilt in the addict's head propel the addiction. An addict may even begin to rationalize the addiction and cause a state of denial: “Everyone does it,” “I need it to be happy,” “It's only one more.”

    Is an addiction a disease? There is controversy over whether an addiction is a disease or a disorder; however, due to the fact addicts can be cured when they take responsibility to recover, referring to an addiction as a 'disease' is not as common because an addiction is not a virus, it is a choice. Addiction is sometimes referred to as a mental illness because addicts suffer from a constant feeling of being controlled, like someone with an anxiety disorder or paranoia. Although it is sometimes hard to distinguish an addiction, it is usually identified as having the ability to produce a positive feeling as well as get rid of a negative feeling. A non-addiction will simply get rid of a negative feeling.

    Common addictions include drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, body image, smoking or nicotine, caffeine, food or overeating. Most addictions have what are called withdrawal symptoms if they are not fulfilled. A heroin addict, for example, will experience vomiting, sweating or high fever. Alcoholics can experience lethargy, weakness or paleness. Even gambling addicts experience withdrawal, suggesting that addictive behaviours are not strictly equivalent to chemical dependence. An ongoing addiction will eventually turn into dependence, and this is when addicts will experience withdrawal if their addiction is not satisfied.

    Addictions work in numerous ways. A person sometimes needs something to feel in control. Most addictions are about feeling in control of oneself. There is a direct feeling of control in which an alcoholic, for example, will drink alcohol to produce certain feelings. There are also addicts who use their addictions to produce an indirect feeling of control in which they feel in control of their environment instead. The irony in these feelings of self-control is that they lead one to believe they are in control until it becomes dependence and controls them instead.

    Addiction goes deeper than this, however. There has been a lot of scientific and psychological research to find out whether a particular drug is physically or psychologically addicting. In essence, addiction itself becomes a psychological problem. An addiction is a “brain disease,” and most drugs have common effects on a single pathway deep within the brain. Once this pathway is activated the addict wants to keep using drugs. “Not only does acute drug use modify brain function in critical ways, but prolonged drug use causes pervasive changes in brain function that persist long after the drug user stops taking drugs,” explains Alan Leshner. He also adds, “If we understand addiction as a psycho-biological illness, with critical biological, behavioural, and social-context components, our treatment strategies must include biological, behavioural, and social-context elements.”

    As an example of what an addict may experience, the following are the steps an addict may take to become addicted to drugs. Some form of underlying unhappiness, hopelessness or pain triggers any addiction. A drug becomes attractive to someone because they are considered to be 'painkillers.' Drugs allow someone to escape. The drugs appear to solve the problem and make them feel better and therein lays the attraction. A cycle begins: the drugs seem to be the best way to solve the problem, so the future-addict will continue to turn to them to feel better. At this point, some addicts will go into denial and disregard the consequences. “If it makes me feel better, I should do it.” The addict will eventually try to withhold their addiction from their family due to feelings of guilt. These feelings of guilt begin to multiply as the person sacrifices personal integrity or loving relationships to continue the habit. Illegal activity may be triggered as the addiction worsens. Depression is often an effect of most addictions because an addict is too consumed in his or her addiction to worry about losing friends, family, partners or jobs. A body can adapt to chemical-altering substances, making the body become immune to them and no longer achieving the same “high.” The physical, emotional, mental and psychological changes can be overwhelming for an addict, making it even harder to quit or take responsibility for their actions. Some addicts will do anything to avoid the pain of withdrawal; this often causes financial difficulties as the drug addict devotes paycheck after paycheck to pay for more drugs. At this point, an addict will become stuck in a vicious downward spiral. The only way out is to take responsibility for the addiction and probably seek professional help.

    As previously mentioned, an addiction is a choice, and an addiction can only be cured if the addict wants it to be cured. As long as the addict is willing, an addiction is treatable. An addiction that is not treated can become self-destructive and harmful to others so it is prescribed that one seeks professional help as soon as possible. There are a number of different resources an addict can go to. There are rehabilitation centers, 12-step programs, hospitals and group therapy such as Alcoholics Anonymous. An addiction is psychological but can cause numerous physical effects. Physical therapy may be necessary as well as emotional counseling. It is possible for an addict to 'hit rock bottom' and then seek help but this is often a painful experience and should be avoided. Only now is society understanding addiction as a “brain disease.” A brain changes after an addiction and although addiction is voluntary behaviour, an addict's brain is different from a non-addict's brain. One of the most important procedures to recovery is coming to terms with the root of the problem; this may involve the help of a psychiatrist or psychologist. Understanding why the addiction started is a complex process but it will help prevent future problems and addictions.