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The Psychology of Addiction

On why addiction is largely a state of the mind so addicts are more addicted to their addiction, the temporary feeling of pleasure, rather than the drugs…

Addiction is primarily psychological although addiction is defined according to the physiological changes in the body, and addiction continues to be considered as a social, cultural, genetic and experiential process as well. Addictive behaviour could be explained as any behaviour that gives temporary or short term pleasure and also provides relief from discomfort although there may be long-term adverse effects.

Addiction is generally described as dependence on any drug and results from substance abuse. Any drug or alcohol can produce addiction as can other things such as the internet, gaming, gadgets, chocolates etc. However the physical and psychological effects of drugs and alcohol are detrimental and actually result in loss of productivity, withdrawal and physical dependence and lack of attention and such other conditions. The primary feature of addiction is dependence as an individual shows increased psychological and physiological dependence on the substance he is addicted to and without the addictive substance the person is unable to return to normal life.

Dependence on anything may not be too bad and some amount of social dependence is expected of us as social beings. However when there is excessive dependence with an inability to live without the substance in question, then withdrawal symptoms result and there are physiological changes in the body including pain and in some cases, medical attention is required. Addiction is an extreme dependence and can cause people to lose the sense of reality as people become crippled without the substance they are addicted to. Addiction leads to crime and anti-social behaviour as addicts can resort to violent behaviour, to stealing, to murder simply to attain what they want. Addiction to a substance could be separated from the healthy use of the substance such as some amount of alcohol is considered acceptable and healthy in a social setting but being completely dependent on alcohol to that which amounts to addiction can have adverse social and personal implications for the individual. Some of the common addictive drugs and substances are opium, alcohol, nicotine and barbiturates. Giving up any addiction, requires strength and this is largely the strength of the mind that aids in stopping any addictive behaviour. Thus, if addiction is a disease, the cure of addiction or even its prevention is largely a psychological process suggesting that the ‘mind’ is responsible for the addiction, the beginning of it and also the end of it.

Using addictive substances stimulate and release the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters in the brain and the dependence on this feeling of pleasure leads to more such pleasure-seeking behaviour and this can spiral out of control and doesn’t remain within the control of the individual who then is completely controlled by his addiction rather than the other way round. Withdrawal or abstinence symptoms of an addictive substance could include anxiety, depression, craving, irritability, restlessness or even thoughts of suicide with fatal consequences. Craving, irritability, depression, anxiety are all psychological withdrawal symptoms of addiction although closely related to the physical withdrawal symptoms. So addiction is largely in the mind and if a person wants, he or she can overcome this extreme dependence on an activity or a substance through self-control and with better insight into his condition.

Why do people develop an addiction?

People who develop addiction are more prone to mental illnesses as addiction has been related to mood or affective disorders, to neurotic illnesses and obsessive disorders, to anxiety disorders and many other psychological problems. Addiction is largely akin to compulsion or the need to repeat any particular behaviour in an abnormal dependent manner and addiction like compulsion is an abnormal dependence. Addicts are obsessed with the substance or objects or activity that they are addicted to and show an abnormal dependence on the substance or activity. Individuals with mood disorders or people prone to frequent depression are prone to addiction as any addictive substance or drug or even activity such as sex that gives short term pleasure can cause the addict to return to this activity or substance again and again so that the depression is forgotten for a while. This need for short term pleasure leads to repeated pleasure seeking behaviour and thus creates addiction.

All human beings are necessarily pleasure seekers, we all like to experience that is good or beautiful or provides a moment of happiness but addicts are in turn addicted to this pleasure as well. In fact, addicts are addicted to the pleasure and not to the drugs, which are simply catalysts to provide them with this pleasure. The drugs and the objects as also the activities that they repeatedly engage in providing them with a solace that they feel they would not find in other options. There are of course chemical changes in the body so there are substantive proofs that addicts do get short term pleasure. Thus, a drug addict repeated uses the drug because it provides a particular form of pleasure that he will not get by say watching films and a sex addict repeatedly seeks sex because the pleasure from sex according to her may not be found in other activities such as travelling or reading. However, this is only a belief that the addict has and is not necessarily true. In fact, there is a sort of fixation of want, and an obsession with the object of want so an addict repeatedly thinks about this want and convinces himself that without the addictive substance he will not be able to survive. When love becomes an addiction, it can lead to suicide or fatal consequences when the object of desire is not attained.

Addicts are thus obsessed and largely depressed individuals who sometimes use the obsession against the depression or to overcome the depression. They are socially withdrawn although they may apparently have a huge circle of friends with whom they may not be able to relate at all levels. Addicts are also susceptible to suggestion and they are vulnerable to opinions of other people. Strange that it may sound, it is easy to mould or change addicts and also easy to hypnotise them as they are very impressionable and easily affected by what people and society have to say about them. This weakness of addicts is also their strength as both negative and positive influences can act equally well on addicts and the right guidance would be necessary to show them what is good for them and what is bad.

How is addiction controlled and stopped?

Stopping or overcoming any addiction could be a challenge but as addicts are changeable and affected easily, it may be relatively easy to bring them back to normal life provided they have the right type of guidance and counselling.

One of the strategies that could be used to cure addictive behaviour would be ‘diversion’, providing alternative substances/activities or shifting their attention or interest into something other than the addictive substance or object. As a TV, the addict could be encouraged to develop more constructive habits of reading for instance.

‘Substitution’ would be another method and a person addicted to alcohol could be encouraged to take a drink that tastes like wine but does not contain alcohol.

‘Eradication’ or complete unavailability of the addictive substance or object can gradually lead to forgetting the pleasure giving substance and interests in other activities. The complete unavailability of a drug, even a sleeping pill can lead to the lessening of addiction for that drug and help the addict to develop other interests, although this should not be done abruptly as physiological and psychological symptoms of withdrawal may result. So if someone is addicted to a specific medicine or pill, the doses could be slowly reduced before completely stopping intake of the drug.

Finally ‘suggestion’ or counselling to change behaviour highlighting the bad effects of a drug or an obsessive activity could be effective at a later stage after withdrawal from the drug or activity has been attempted as when in need of any substance, addicts lose all sense of reality and may not even want to listen to advice. So, only when their dependence reduces to an extent with the help of the other methods of substitution, eradication or diversion, counselling could help them to show more reasonable and socially responsible behaviour and prevent further conditions of relapse.

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