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The Psychology of Addiction

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How do people become addicted to drugs? The recent contributions from science and medicine in the past 50–60 years have significantly expanded our understanding of addiction. We are beginning to understand the biological forces that influence behaviour, both humans and animals.

Addiction is easier to understand when we consider that our biology enables us to pursue and repeat pleasurable experiences. But we are not slaves to our biology. The unbridled pursuit of pleasure represents a kind of immaturity for development, as it is depicted in the classic story of Peter Pan.

Therefore, psychological, sociocultural and spiritual factors influence whether we mature beyond our biological limits.

Until recently, people with addiction disorders such as drug addiction were considered selfish, weak-willed people. They seemed to be behaving badly, regardless of themselves or others. People with addiction problems will tell you that willpower is not enough; our organic make-up explains why this is so.

Advances in neurobiological research have changed the perception of addiction. Addiction is no longer limited to problematic substance use. We now know that certain activities can also be addictive (such as sex and gambling). This is because addiction is a brain function problem.

We become addicted to the chemicals our brains release, not the substance or activity that releases them. Our genetics largely determine how our brain works. The American Society of Addictions Medicine (ASAM) is the US’s largest specialist society for people with addiction.

ASAM is dedicated to the treatment and prevention of addiction. In 2011, ASAM released a new definition of addiction. It says that genetics make up about 50% of the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction. This ASAM definition of addiction describes addiction as a ‘chronic brain disease’.

This is very different from the prevailing definition. It remains controversial whether we should reduce dependency on a ‘chronic brain disease’ or not. But there is strong evidence of a genetic component of addiction; it arises not only because someone has a weak will.

According to Rosglas Recovery people suffering from addiction don’t choose their genetics. You therefore do not check whether there is a risk of addiction. Although our biological makeup has a strong impact. Our biology does not completely determine our behaviour. People are certainly able to prefer recovery from addiction.

This makes addiction disorders very similar to other diseases and disorders. Many health problems require lifestyle changes to restore health. For example, people with diabetes need to regularly check blood sugar levels and count carbohydrates. People with heart disease must opt for a healthier diet and exercise programme.

Obviously, these people didn’t choose to face these health challenges. But they will decide how to deal with it. The same applies to people with addiction problems such as drug addiction. The brain is the most dynamic and complex organ in our body. The proper functioning of the brain ensures our survival.

When our brains work well, we constantly adapt to our surroundings. Ironically, it is the brain’s ability to adapt and that contributes to the formation of addiction.

Alcoholism alters the brain’s natural balance (homeostasis). Alcoholism changes brain chemistry.  Alcoholism changes the brain’s communication patterns.  Alcoholism leads to changes in brain structures and how they work. Many of the symptoms that we usually associate with addiction are due to these changes in the brain.

Changes in the cerebral cortex are associated with impaired decision making, impulsiveness and compulsiveness. These changes increase the likelihood of you taking medication or having difficulty resisting the urge to take it. Many of the symptoms that we usually associate with addiction are due to these changes in the brain. The brain’s reward system is responsible for drug addiction and cravings. From an evolutionary perspective, the brain’s reward system ensures the survival of our species.

We are more likely to repeat behaviours that are fun (such as eating and sex). Unfortunately, addictions exploit this healthy function. People become addicted because they find drug effects pleasant. This function of the brain makes relapse more likely, although people have good intentions to stop using it.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.


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