How does addiction work?

Addiction usually has a standardized process, regardless of the activity you have become addicted to. We say "activity" because addiction doesn't always deal with a substance. Actually, you can develop an addiction to having sex or going to the gym as well as to alcohol or cocaine. Check this out and learn what is the process to develop an addiction. It may help you understand what is happening to you, or your addict friend or relative. Last, but not least, it doesn't matter how deep you may have fallen into an addiction at this stage, there is always a way to get out of it.

The workings of addiction

1. Every addiction starts with a voluntary step. You smoke, eat, go gambling or to the gym probably because you were tired or stressed, or just because you wanted to do something different. So far, you just tried it out and liked the experience. You can simply go home and forget it. The next day, you continue with your daily tasks and that's it.

2. Soon, you decide to repeat the experience. Perhaps something stressing happened, maybe you just were in the mood to doing it again (as you liked the experience). You are not noticing it, but your brain is now releasing happiness hormones (yes, endorphins and others) while you are carrying out the activity you like (here onwards, we'll call it triggering activity). Thus, your body starts to relate both of them (the triggering activity and the sensation of happiness or relax you feel after carrying it out) as a relationship of cause and effect. Although you are still carrying out voluntary steps, you are starting to condition your mind and body towards an addiction.

3. As you liked the experience and it made you feel good, the activity now triggers a bio-psychological process in your body. So far, you are welcoming a new habit.

4. The next step is simple, as you carry out the triggering activity more frequently, your body soon gets used to the release of the happiness hormones mentioned above, and specially if you carry out the triggering activity every constant number of days or at constant hours.

5. Notwithstanding the fact you like the triggering activity, you soon notice you are not as happy as before with it. This is called tolerance, and it appears because you consciously foresee the sensation of happiness you are going to feel, and you body reacts delaying it. Gradually, you see yourself doing the triggering activity either more frequently or with more intensity. Now you have a vice.

6. Addiction, as we know it, ripens when you feel a need for the sensation of happiness more strongly than your ability to decide whether you want to do the activity or not. If you lose the capacity of controlling the activity, congratulations, you have an addiction.

Now, how deep do you want to get into it? That depends on you.

How to fight an addiction

First of all, understanding it... then, facing it. Although addiction is not exclusively a behavioural pattern, as many substances change the chemistry of your brain enhancing the sensation of need described above, addictions are basically the same thing, regardless of its triggering event. An addiction is a developed dependence of both brain and body to your triggering activity. You have unconsciously conditioned your mind and body to relate your happiness with the triggering activity, and probably the triggering activity has helped to enhance that changing the chemistry of your brain). Once the addiction is set on your mind, a new process —the one which does not allow you to quit so easily— starts and goes as follows:

+ You get aware of your vice and you wish to quit, but you feel fear. I personally attribute this fear to two reasons: On the one hand, you know you are already attached to something that is negative for you; and you have already heard that quitting an addiction is both hard and painful. Your brain reacts: fearing pain, it enhance your sensation of attachment to the triggering activity.

+ In other occasions, you don't notice you haven't carried out the triggering activity in a while and you start missing it. You are right, this is usually called "withdrawal effect". What happens here is that you feel a strong sudden impulse to do the triggering activity again. Anxiety invades you and a obsession to repeat the activity pecks your brain, creating both stress and anxiety as you put off the activity. No brainer: as soon as you do it again, the stress finishes.

+ But why? In an addict, the brain is conditioned to relate happiness to the triggering substance or activity. So, when you see, smell, touch or just think about the triggering activity, your brain reacts instantly and gives the order to try to reach it... because you want to feel happy! This order is very strong, up to ten times what a non-addict can feel about the same thing. This is what makes you feel the strong urge to repeat your addictive behaviour. Soon you buy.

What to do

+ Stay away from places and things that may get you close or think about your triggering activity. Don't force yourself to stay away from it, just decide to spend your time in other things.

+ When the withdrawal effect strikes you, remember what you have read above. The sensation is up to ten times stronger than what a non-addict feels... but it is just that: a feeling, a sensation. It is still you who gives the commands in your life. Think about that, take a deep breath and wait until the anxiety goes away. You would have won a great battle if you do it.

+ Also understand that quitting may also bring you hunger, sadness and, in general, a sensation of being unbalanced or of having lost something. It is normal. You are in process of change.

+ Last, and probably the most important. Fight battle by battle, one by one. It doesn't matter if you have been an addict for years or if you have carried out the triggering activity a hundred thousand times before. That is past tense, history or whatever you want to call it. It doesn't matter if you fail a couple of times more or a couple of dozens. Just keep fighting and you'll get out. Again, fight battle by battle and soon you'll see you will start winning wars.

+ Tell your family and friends you have changed and ask them to support you. Very especially, ask them not to judge you if you fall again once or twice.

A word for the family

Thousands of ex-addicts worldwide prove that they can change. Addiction is a process in which we teach our bodies to be happy if they receive certain specific stimulus. Now your relative needs to learn something new: to live without the triggering activity. This might take a while, but as soon as it is accomplished, the former addict can have a normal life again, if the biological damage has not been much.

Support him or her as much as you can; and be patient: you have your own defects.


Knowledge + Health