In my last two articles, I discussed habit versus addiction and then looked at habit in more detail. To conclude the series, I now want to explore the psychology of addiction.
What is addiction?
Addiction is when a person uses a substance or activity for pleasure, to the point that they believe that they can no longer enjoy their life without their continued use of said substance or activity.
As the addiction grows, it starts to impact on daily routines and general functionality of life, such as work and relationships. So, how does an addiction form?
The truth of the matter is that we all enjoy the things that give us pleasure, whether it’s consuming something or performing an activity. In that moment, our brains produce dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Neurons release a chemical sending signals to other nerve cells. Our brains have several dopamine pathways, one of which is related to reward-motivated behaviour (1). After a while, the dopamine is reabsorbed and the experience of the moment ends as we move onto something else, such as going home to bed after a night out drinking.
Addiction can start to establish as the brain adapts to the substance or activity over prolonged use or doing. The levels of dopamine receptors produced then start to reduce to compensate e.g. for the consumption of a drug, such as cocaine. As the consumer comes down, they will require more to achieve the same high. This is known as tolerance.
There are said to be two mechanisms involved in tolerance: pharmacokinetic tolerance and pharmacodynamic tolerance. Pharmacokinetic tolerance is a decreased quantity of the substance reaching the target area. Pharmacodynamic tolerance occurs because there is a decreased response to the drug. Commonly, this happens due to a reduction in the number of receptors.
There is a general assumption that tolerance will always lead to addiction. However, this is not necessarily the case. Opiates have four functions or effects, pain management, sedation, nausea and constipation. For most people, the effects of pain and constipation remain the same in that the drug remains effective without the need to increase the dosage. An opiate abuser is seeking the euphoric high, which then does require more each time to get the high. This is due to the brain’s reaction to the drug and the reduction of the dopamine pathways (2).
According to the charity, Action on Addiction, one in three of us are addicted to something. It goes without saying, that the first step to beating an addiction is recognising it in the first place. Having done that, there are many programmes and sources of help available, which will vary greatly dependent on the root and type of addiction. If you have concerns about this for yourself or a loved one, a good starting point for information in the UK is the NHS website www.nhs.uk (3).
Addiction destroys lives, not just that of the addict. Research continues on this vast subject. Society plays a great part in addiction and we can all contribute to the battle against it in many different ways. It is still a taboo that we need to overcome on our journey to combat and overcome it.
About the author: Stuart Dickson’s passion for personal development began in September 2013, when he joined a Network Marketing Company. Part of his development is increasing his spirituality and the many ways of doing this. His first blog, Happy Monday People was born from a project that came about from his personal development journey facebook.com/Happylifepeople
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