The Roots of Addiction

The Roots of Addiction |

In recent years, addiction has been viewed as an illness. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) also views addiction as an illness because like other mental illnesses, it changes the fundamental ways in which the brain functions. It causes a disturbance in how an individual prioritizes his or her needs, making drug use highest on the list of physical, emotional, and psychological needs.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes the cycle of addiction, which produces a high, or rush in the brain. In fact, the activation of the brain’s reward system is the root of the problem. It is possible to develop an addiction to the point that it becomes the sole focus of one’s life to the exclusion and detriment of other life-activities. Exposure to drugs, alcohol, or any behavioral dependence, such as gambling initiates and facilitates the cycle of addiction.

Yet, before and beyond this cycle are many underlying issues that contribute to drug, alcohol, or even behavioral addiction, which further supports the view of addiction as a mental illness. Two of these dysfunctional patterns are feeling powerless and participating in relationships in which there is enabling:

Powerlessness is a feeling, often an unconscious one, that leads to believing that power is outside of one’s control. In other words, if you did poorly on your chemistry exam and you can admit that you did not study all the concepts covered in class or that you were distracted during your studying, you are exhibiting a sense of personal power and taking responsibility for your grade. However, if you feel that your low grade is because the teacher does not like you or because the concepts are too hard or because you had an argument the morning of the exam, you are handing over a sense of power to external sources.

This is having what is sometimes called an external locus of control. To explain this further, psychologist Julian Rotter introduced and coined the term, locus of control, in the 1950’s. To put it more simply, your locus of control is what you deem to have power over the successes and failures in your life.

Addiction is rooted in powerlessness. Ultimately, the addict hands over his or her power to the substance or behavior he or she is addicted to. Just as an individual might dismiss his power when he says that he failed the exam because of the teacher’s dislike of him, the addict is often completely ignorant of his or her power.

Enabling is a pattern that often exists in relationships where feelings of powerlessness exist. With this, there is often a belief among both or one of the partners that it would be impossible to make in life without the other person. The belief in being powerless in life leads to a dysfunctional relying on the other person for things that one can and should do on their own. This underlying belief in being powerless seems to attract an enabler who in turn believes that no one else can perform a task as well as they can.

Enablers tend to take control of a situation thinking that they are being helpful without seeing that it would be more healthy to allow the other person to do that task on his or her own. It is common for the enabler to see the addict as powerless, playing into the addict’s belief in him or herself as being powerless. Enabling patterns are often the result of co-dependent relationships.

Certainly, treatment of addiction, once the dependence itself has been addressed, must include the transformation of deeply embedded habits, thoughts, and beliefs. As these internal patterns find change, relapse might still occur. However, this doesn’t mean that recovery is impossible; in many cases, a relapse can strengthen one’s commitment to stay sober.

Treating an addiction requires addressing the underlying issues. In addition to those mentioned above, it means exploring any unexpressed emotions, such as anger, shame, resentment, or sadness. Indeed, addiction is a mental illness that deserves to be treated as such.


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