Addiction is an ongoing concern and can, in a very short amount of time, change the life of someone you love. It can be devastating. It is estimated that roughly one out of every ten people are suffering from some form of addiction. The opioid crisis has been highly publicized and has become a national tragedy. Alcohol and drug addiction continue to ruin lives and relationships. These are the addictions we know about – and they are dangerous. But addiction need not be limited to controlled substances. Millions of people suffer from behavioral addictions such as gambling, sex, exercise, shopping, and video games. These addictions can produce the same biological, social and psychological distress as substance abuse.
Behavioral addictions produce the same need and symptoms as substance abuse, but are harder to diagnose and much easier to dismiss. Biologically the same, behavioral addictions come with their own sets of complications, warning signs and treatment options.
This section is focused on addiction in general and behavioral addiction in particular. If you feel that you may suffer from some form of addiction, please seek help. Do not be ashamed. Millions of people are suffering the same; but millions of people can offer help.
Addiction is a long-lasting and debilitating brain disease that can never truly be cured, merely well-controlled. It is not a moral failing or a lack of will-power that causes a person to fall deeper into addiction. The brain physically changes, and those changes have long-lasting consequences.
In order to understand addiction, we must first understand the concept of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the state of steady internal conditions maintained by all living things. Your brain maintains homeostasis by adapting to external and internal physiological stimuli. It is outside conscious control and will be maintained by the brain regardless of situation, climate or affliction.
The Biology of Addiction
An addiction “hijacks” the brain by manipulating neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances released by neurons in the brain in order to communicate with other neurons across a small space called a synapse. This makes it possible for the brain to send and receive signals dictating all of our behaviors. During the process of addiction, many different neurotransmitters are active with dopamine being the most common.
The areas of the brain most associated with addiction are the nucleus accumbens, hippocampus, amygdala and frontal cortex. These areas are commonly known as the “pleasure circuit” of the brain.
- An inability to stop indulging in the substance or behavior
- Continuation regardless of worsening health
- Mental obsession with the substance or behavior
- Taking risks to increase effects or instances of a substance or behavior
- Dropping previously loved hobbies or activities
- Financial difficulty
- Increasing secrecy or solitude
- Denial of problem
- Increasing legal issues
- Withdrawal symptoms
- Change in appetite
- Change in appearance
- Increasing tolerance for the substance or increased risk-taking for the behavior
Withdrawal: The onset of symptoms, both physical and mental, when an addicted substance/behavior is reduced or discontinued completely. Symptoms can include (but are not limited to):
- Extreme Headaches
- Muscle tremors, spasms and shakes
- Heart Attacks
Withdrawal symptoms differ depending upon the type of addiction. The most dangerous are associated with alcohol and tranquilizers. The acute stage of withdrawal can last for a few weeks and is generally the most uncomfortable for the addicted. In this stage, the addicted person exhibits physical symptoms. The second stage is known as the post-acute stage. In this stage of withdrawal, the emotional and psychological symptoms are most prominent. Post-acute withdrawal lasts an average of two years, as your brain chemistry gradually returns to normal.
Withdrawal occurs because the brain chemistry is changing back to the original setting. This causes a person to experience physical and mental hardship. As the neurological pathways hijacked by addiction become re-routed or cleaned, the body responds in adverse ways. After a short (yet torturous) time, the neurotransmitters readjust. Addiction goes much deeper than that, however. The feelings and memories created during addiction cannot go away “overnight.” This is why the post-acute stage can last up to two years. The memory of the feeling of addiction must be able to fade and be weakened.