understanding addiction

Before I began to write this blog I tried to remember how addiction was explained to me. I remember feeling extremely confused and very unsure about what I was hearing. At the time I didn’t understand all the different factors that had to be taken into account before someone was diagnosed with an addiction and I have to be honest I couldn’t understand why someone couldn’t just stop! I also didn’t consider or understand what it meant to be called ‘addict’ and why someone might be reluctant to accept the label! Of course after training as an addiction counsellor I now have a deeper understanding (Thank God!!). In my practice I have worked with people who are deep in addiction and have had the privilege of walking alongside them into recovery. What follows is a brief explanation of the different aspects of addiction which I hope leave you somewhat enlightened.

In today’s society the term addiction, its effects on the individual, family members and society as a whole has become of great meaning and discussion. While originally addiction was assigned to alcohol and drugs, we now know the label is pinned to food, gambling, work, internet and phone addiction to name but a few.

When someone begins to use a substance or behaviour, they don’t often experience adverse consequences and it is important to remember that nobody sets out to become addicted. However as their use continues they may begin to focus more on the substance or behaviour and neglect other areas of their lives. Cultural factors, traumatic life events, troubled relationships with family, genetics or where someone lives are all factors that may influence if someone abuses a substance or behaviour. It’s important to note that a combination of these factors does not mean someone will definitely develop an addiction but it does increase the risk.

We also have to take into account the physiological side to using a substance, what actually happens in the brain. Taking a substance activates the reward centres in the brain releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine or serotonin. These neurotransmitters produce feelings of euphoria, which is often referred to as a “high.” This ‘happy’ feeling is what the person chases. However a high can often be followed by a severe low (withdrawals) which can lead to the person using a substance or behaviour again to feel better. Another factor worth mentioning is the psychological side where the mental state of the person can often lead to abuse of a substance or behaviour. Unresolved feelings of anger, upset, hurt, anxiety or depression can lead to using substances in order to self-medicate and cope with these feelings.

Withdrawal symptoms of alcohol, opiates and sedatives is physical and includes sweating, nausea, vomiting, palpitations and tremors. Drugs like Cocaine or ecstasy cause psychological withdrawal symptoms which include feelings of anxiety, irritability, isolation, insomnia, and depression. So to alleviate these symptoms and feel ‘normal’ the person needs to use again. Imagine how difficult it is for someone to withdraw from a combination of substances and all those physical and psychological symptoms in one?!

It is important to note that an addiction does not develop overnight, but if you think your alcohol or drug use is becoming an issue then seek support. In Part 2 of this blog I will discuss the criteria for an addiction diagnosis and what you can do if you think you may have developed one.

For information on my addiction counselling service click  here