When addiction starts it is neither a curse, nor a guaranteed doom. Instead, addiction behaves similar to a disease, and like other diseases, it can be fought, cured, and even prevented. However, that doesn’t mean addiction can be tackled quite in the same way we tackle the common cold.
Instead of passing judgment onto people who struggle with it, it’s important to understand how addiction starts, why it starts, and how we can work together as a society to prevent its negative effects from spreading throughout generations.
The Process Of Addiction
Addiction is not a simple process, nor is it strictly defined by any one example. Rather than possessing a predictive pathology like many diseases, addiction develops more like a mental health problem, and has both many causes, symptoms, and treatment options. For example: while the effects of addiction on the brain are always noticeable, and a definite part of addiction, the reason addiction starts to develop in the brain is different from person to person – as is their resistance to addictive substances, their reaction to them, and their reaction to different types of treatment.
Behavioral addictions like gambling and sex addiction are just as valid as an addiction to heroin, and can be just as life-threatening in different ways, but their development is very different. While substance abuse creates a drug tolerance and warps the brain’s pleasure center, behavioral addiction leads to similar issues in the brain’s pleasure center without addictive substances or drug-related tolerance and withdrawal issues.
To understand the process of how addiction starts, we have to go to the source – the brain. The brain is a complicated organ, but one aspect of it in particular is susceptible to addiction – our reward pathways. Several parts of the brain are involved in the reward process – this is an important part of our psychology, and our evolution. We have neurochemicals in us that are released to make us feel good, or happy. Certain stimuli release these neurochemicals in greater amounts than others. Hunger, when satiated by food, turns into a great relief and happiness. We crave sex and feel good about it because part of our genetic code is to procreate, and the brain reinforces that behavior in most people.
Even things that we don’t immediately correlate with pleasure, like challenge and physical exertion, bring about a release of rewarding chemicals in the brain when done “right”. This is why gambling and risk-taking feels so good – part of us, especially in men, seeks out risky challenges because these tend to provide greater reward. Sure, it’s risky to take on a mammoth, but the meat will provide for a group of people for a long time, whereas a single smaller mammal may be easier to catch, but would not be as rewarding to the group. Beyond that, however, risky behavior often translates into social value – basically, you become more popular. And that’s valuable as well.
Although it is a very simplistic example, this same sort of thinking applies to many activities and behaviors. Both our biological needs, and the effort we go through to satisfy them, equals reward; both in nature, and in our brains.
Drugs bypass the effort needed to attain something, and goes straight to giving us the satisfaction of having it, but amped up by several factors. This extreme release of positive emotions occurs through different manipulations of various receptors within the brain’s cells. Stimulants block the release of neurotransmitters, thus causing us to be easily motivated and much happier, while depressives like alcohol decrease our inhibition and anxiety.
But these effects only last for a while. When we’re bombarded with an excessive amount of anything, our body works hard to get used to it quickly. While this is great when working on pain tolerance or endurance, it works the same way for pleasure – driving people to engage in increasingly risky behavior or take more drugs in order to retain that initial high.
This greatly messes with the brain’s reward system, to the point where the satisfaction from regular tasks – such as food, work, and hobbies – wanes. From there, addiction starts to take over quickly.
Understanding Why People Get Addicted
In many cases, there is a strong correlation between drug use or behavioral addiction and unhappiness, stress, or even depression – but in other cases, people can fall prey to an addiction without an emotional compulsion towards using a behavior or drug as a distraction or coping mechanism.
These inconsistencies confuse many people who try to strictly quantify addiction as being one with or another, rather than being a problem all of its own. Stop thinking of addiction as something other than an addiction, and don’t attach to it any concept of morals or justice. Addiction doesn’t befall “bad people”, it affects everyone. While addiction starts with a wrong choice, we all make bad decisions in our life, and no one is infallible 100% of the time.
All it takes is one bad episode to make someone lose hope and go down a path that leads to addiction, or a small, intrusive thought that grows into a behavioral problem. From one small drink after work to two, bad habits like drinking can turn into the way addiction starts in the blink of an eye, and not because of moral weakness, but because we’re human.
When Addiction Starts & How To Prevent It
Drug addiction can be prevented by never taking drugs, including alcohol. But behavioral addiction can be a bit more difficult to avoid. We need to eat, preferably without developing an eating disorder. Regular exercise is also important, preferably without becoming a sports addict. And many people enjoy the thrills of sex, without developing an unhealthy relationship to it. The key here seems to be finding healthy coping mechanisms.
While addictive drugs can turn anyone’s life into a living hell through addiction, behavioral addiction is usually a sign of over-reliance and obsession driven by a need to cope with some pain or burden. This isn’t true for everyone, and an insight into your own family history might help you be more mindful of certain behavior with an addictive history – but for the most part, behavioral addictions can be seen as symptoms of a greater issue, ranging from post-traumatic stress to stress brought about by toxic relationships, and instances of severe bullying.
Healthy coping mechanisms, coupled with eliminating undue stressors at their heart, are key. Having sex to satisfy your sex drive and/or be intimate with a loved one is one thing; having sex to escape the drudges of an unfulfilling and stressful work environment is another. Address the issue at hand by finding another job, or another line of work, and utilize a constructive hobby like exercise or art to get rid of excessive tension without jeopardizing your relationship by making your partner feel like a stress ball.
Sometimes, addiction can’t be avoided. But even then, treating addiction is not unlike preventing it. After the initial withdrawal period, recovery is all about making sure you don’t fall prey to old habits.