Addiction Psychology

The concept of drug and alcohol addiction is puzzling to many people. They do not understand how it happens. As a result, there are many misconceptions about how addiction works. For instance, it is mistakenly believed by some that drug and alcohol addicts simply lack wholesome moral principles, and are weak for being unable to quit.

Many believe that an addict could just stop using drugs by simply choosing to do so. The truth, however, is that drug addiction is a complex condition, and fighting the addiction takes a lot more than good intentions or will. One reason for this is that drugs alter the brain in a way that makes quitting difficult, even for a person that wants to. The good news, though, is that quitting is possible – more and more people have successfully overcome addiction and stayed clean after. This is because psychologists now know more than they ever have about the effects of drugs on the brain, and as a result, have developed effective treatment methods that help people recover. However, how do drugs affect the brain? How does addiction develop? What is the psychology behind addiction?

To start with, consider the definitions of psychology and addiction.

What Is Psychology?

Simply put, psychology is a branch of science that is devoted to the study and understanding of the human mind and behaviour. It observes the thought process of an individual, their reasoning and perception, and how these impact on their behaviour.

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What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a brain disorder identified by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite the negative and even dangerous consequences. Addiction is primarily driven, developed, and maintained by a biological process, induced by repeated exposure to an addictive stimulus.

The Psychology of How Addiction Develops

Two properties characterise all addictive stimuli:

  • Reinforcing: a person will likely seek repeated exposure to them.
  • Intrinsically rewarding: a person perceives them to be inherently desirable, pleasurable, and positive.

When addiction sets in, transcriptional and epigenetic changes cause a disorder in the brain’s reward system, as a result of prolonged exposure to chronically high levels of addictive stimuli.

In most cases, the initial decision to take drugs, and continuous drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and distorts their ability to resist the severe urges to take drugs.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

The brain recognises and registers all pleasure in the same way, whether it be a delicious and satisfying meal, monetary reward, or drug use. In the brain, moments of pleasure are noted by the release of some neurotransmitters. When drugs are abused (for recreational purposes), an intense surge of dopamine occurs, resulting in a “shortcut” to the brain’s reward system. The neurotransmitters, while contributing to the experience of pleasure, also play a role in memory and learning. This learning process motivates, or urges, a person to take action and seek out the source of pleasure from past experiences. Following this pattern, some have called addiction a learned behaviour.

Risk Factors Leading to Addiction

There is no one factor that can be used to predict if a person is going to become an addict or not. Rather, there is a combination of factors that influence the risk of addiction. It goes without saying that the more risk factors a person possesses, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction for them.

Genetics/Biology – The biological makeup of a person can be a risk factor. The genes that a person inherits make up about half of a person’s risk of becoming an addict. Ethnicity, gender, and the presence of other mental disorders in an individual are all also potential risk factors. It has long been known that addicts usually have a below active dopamine system, that gives them a diminished capacity to feel pleasure in their ordinary lives.

Method of use – As certain drugs are more addictive than others, the method in which the drugs are administered can also increase the risk of developing an addiction. Drugs that are injected or smoked tend to be more addictive than those swallowed. This is because injected or smoked drugs go straight into the bloodstream and brain, bypassing the liver and other organs that would have filtered them first.

Environment – A person’s environment also plays a part. This environment includes family and friends, stress, parental guidance (or lack thereof), socioeconomic status, stress, and early exposure to toxic environments. For example, growing up without both parents around, or with both parents being drug users, will leave a person at a risk of being exposed to drugs at a tender age, thus, resulting in an increase of possible addiction.

Drug of choice – The time it takes to become an addict varies. While some addictions develop gradually, over several months, or even years, others happen more quickly. The object of your addiction can be a factor.

Drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamines, tend to be more addictive than alcohol or marijuana. The withdrawal, or “get-off” phase, tends to be physically painful when a person uses heroin or cocaine.

In trying to avoid these painful withdrawal symptoms, the addict may use more often and in higher doses. This can expedite the addiction process, and increase the risk of serious complications, including overdose.

Drugs as a Way to Escape Reality

Professional behaviourists have discovered that the majority of psychological addictions begins with feelings of helplessness, despair, and being out of control. Intense emotions like fear, rage, jealousy, and hopelessness make some people feel helpless. To suppress these uncomfortable feelings, abusers turn to drugs or alcohol.

At the onset, using these substances to quell unpleasant feelings is a choice. Really, there is no one that wakes up in the morning and decides they are going to become a substance abuser, or an addict, and practice a life-threatening compulsion. However, gradually, the behaviour or drug of choice becomes a necessary ritual that must be carried out and becomes the primary method of relieving strong feelings.

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The Different Types of Addictive Behaviours

The word addiction is used in various ways. One definition defines physical addiction as the biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of drugs. This is characterised by the body developing a tolerance to drugs or reacting physically to cues and triggers linked with the drugs. For example, an alcoholic may begin to get chills and sweat at the sight of people drinking alcohol.

Another definition says that addictive behaviours are psychologically based. This is because people commonly use drugs in reaction to being stressed, irrespective of whether they have a physical addiction or not. Since these psychologically-based addictions are not based on drug or mental effects, it may explain the reason people switch addictive actions from one drug to another. This type of addiction is not based on a physical drug or trigger, it is psychological – the desire for the “feel good effect”.

Treating this kind of addiction requires an understanding of the psychological workings of the drug.

Treating Addiction

The psychological symptoms of addiction can be studied, understood, and treated, but not by viewing them as a result of lack of motivation or willpower, or weak thinking. In fact, simply breaking free of the addiction may, in most cases, not address the real psychology behind the addiction.

While quitting the physiological craving for the drug, this does not stop the person’s desire to escape their stressful everyday life. Breaking free of psychological addiction requires an understanding of the root cause of the addictive behaviour, and learning to quit the destructive cycle. This could mean confronting unpleasant situations, people, and emotions, rather than avoiding them. This may mean taking a productive, proactive, and positive approach, not to escape a situation, but to deal with it.

Research has shown that combining addiction treatment medication with behavioural therapy gives the best possible chance of successful treatment. Of course, every addict is unique, so treatment approaches should be tailored to each patient’s unique circumstances.

Addiction to drugs and alcohol are best treated as a psychological and behavioural problem, in order to tackle it completely. Getting to know the psychology that fuels addiction makes it easier to understand those with addictions, and provide the right assistance in overcoming it.

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