Applied Psychology

What is Addiction?

Apr 25, 2024 | By Jenna van Schoor
Group of people talking about addiction

Addiction takes many different forms, but its various manifestations can have lasting and devastating effects. 

But how do we manage it? The first step is understanding what it is and how it presents. Unfortunately, many addictions aren’t always visible, which makes it more challenging to recognise and treat them. However, the more we learn, the more we can empower ourselves to make impactful societal change through counselling and mental health support.

This post will discuss addiction, share different perspectives on its causes, and discuss some treatment methods.

What is addiction?

Healthline defines addiction as “a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory.” If we unpack this, we can see that it often has more to do with the underlying processes that drive addictive behaviour than the addictive substance or behaviour in itself. 

In other words, a problematic dependency can present itself in many ways. Therefore, it’s essential to address the root cause of this dysfunction. Many treatment methods and approaches exist, but therapy and counselling form the backbone.

To help us better understand this condition, it’s critical to understand that addictive behaviour is impulsive and driven by desires the person struggles to control. For these reasons, assigning blame is not helpful. Offering a supportive approach to uncovering and addressing underlying issues is more constructive.

Perspectives on addiction

We often think of the worst-case scenarios regarding these compulsive behaviours. For example, becoming dependent on opiates or becoming bankrupt due to compulsive gambling. However, many of these behaviours can initially stem from seemingly innocuous behaviour, which then becomes increasingly problematic.

For example, drinking coffee might not be an essentially problematic behaviour, but it needs addressing when it starts affecting someone’s health negatively. Smoking cigarettes is also ubiquitous, which can also cause health problems but doesn’t initially impact a person’s ability to go about day-to-day activities (unless they become ill, of course).

Caffeine, nicotine, sugar and alcohol are common addictive substances, although people using these substances might not necessarily have a self-control problem. When it comes to substances like cocaine, opioids and marijuana, the situation becomes further complicated due to many of these being illegal.

It’s also important to note that compulsive behaviours are not limited to ingesting substances. It can also present as overworking, overspending, oversocialising and even internet overuse problems. To get some perspective on addictive behaviour, looking at some theories on its causes is helpful to give us further insight.

Causes of addiction

It might be challenging to understand why someone would put their health and life in danger by repeatedly using an illicit substance or engaging in dangerous behaviour. However, we must return to the abovementioned definition to grasp the concept.

The truth is that for a dependency to develop, there needs to be a reward that is repeatedly sought. Caffeine or sugar, for example, can provide a boost of energy. With more potent substances, a very distinct “high” or feeling of euphoria is what may initially drive people to ingest narcotics. At the same time, the behaviour may be driven by avoiding pain. 

As we know, however, over time, the behaviour is sustained to avoid the pain the addiction itself now brings on top of the original pain that was being avoided. It is important to remember that addiction can have physical or psychological causes or a combination of both.

According to neuroscientific research, specific compulsive behaviours can result from certain parts of the brain malfunctioning when responding to a stimulus, for example, the frontal lobe, which doesn’t delay gratification as it should. Specific chemical imbalances and mental health challenges can also make people more prone to compulsive behaviour. 

Trauma-informed perspectives on addiction

A neuroscientific approach can give us some perspective into how various brains might function differently and be more susceptible to impulsive behaviour and chasing “highs”. However, there are emotional and trauma-informed perspectives that need considering.

Dr Gabor Maté is a psychiatrist who believes that compulsive coping mechanisms are a result of unprocessed traumatic experiences. One of his most famous sayings, highlighted in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, is “Ask not why the addiction, ask why the pain.”

Maté based this book on his work as a doctor in a Toronto neighbourhood that is known for drug abuse. After interviewing several people, he found a distinct commonality between their stories: one of profound despair. If we approach treatment in this way, it’s clear that counselling is needed to help support people who are dealing with immense pain. 

How to treat addiction

We’ve given a brief overview of what addiction is and have shared some insights into neuroscientific and trauma-informed approaches. However, understanding it is only the first step, and finding constructive ways to help those who need support is essential.

One of the most common treatment methods is to visit a rehabilitation facility. The famous 12-step approach has proven a beneficial tool for many. But, as one of the cornerstones of rehabilitation is psychotherapy, it is not only a helpful treatment method but can also help prevent it.

Do you have an interest in learning more about addiction, trauma and mental health? Visit the links below to learn more:

Previous post

Next post