June 16, 2016

What is an Addiction and Addiction Formation

In part one of this seven-part series, we explore "what is an addiction", the formation of addictions, why they occur and provide you with a simple understanding of some of the most important underlying causes.

Cravings. We all have them. Things, that, we simply must have. Think about it. What do you crave? Is it coffee, chocolate, sex, or the internet? We all crave certain things. Somethings, more often than others. What triggers these cravings—the possibilities are endless. But what's more important is what happens beyond cravings and how we form addictions. There's a lot of noise and confusion on the internet about addictions. People coming at it from all different angles. For now, we'll start with examining; what is an addiction and walk you through some of the scientific methods of addiction formation, in a way that is easy to understand.

It Starts with Habits

Every time we learn to do something without having to consciously think about it, our brain is forming a habit. What exactly is a habit?
"A habit is a learned behavior that enables us to achieve a desired goal with utmost efficiency."
For example, we learn to drive eventually not having to consciously think about it. This is because, the more we learn to drive, the more our brain changes its own chemistry. As a result, it enables us to do the same thing over and over effectively achieving the same thing but in a more optimal way.

Assuming you've learned to be quite a competent driver, you know, for instance, how to turn the wheel when you want to go left or right. You know just how much to press the accelerator and the brake. And you know, how, to shift gears when you need to.

You know, because it's become a learned behavior—a habit!

What is an Addiction?

What does this have to do with addictions? In essence, addictions are nothing more than habits on steroids.

Addiction is formed when your brain learns that particular behaviors, whether it's smoking, sex, or eating sugar, will up your levels of dopamine, the brain's “pleasure chemical,” to make you feel much better very quickly.

Your brain learns that this is the fastest, most efficient way to bring your mood to where it needs to be to keep you satisfied and to function. Your brain has no nefarious intent. All it's trying to do is find the straightest line between two points—unhappiness, and happiness.

For example, if you have a learned behavior that alcohol is the best, most efficient way to make you happy, your brain, consciously or unconsciously, will compel you to return to consuming alcohol when it senses your dopamine levels are low.

It doesn't determine whether the behavior response may be wrong, dangerous, or unhealthy. It just knows what affects your chemistry. Without the brain's ability to form addictions, we would be all but helpless as we move through everyday life.
"Addictions are a side effect of the mind's brilliance in forming patterns that carry us through each day"

From Habit to Addiction

If addiction is simply one form of a habit, what's the difference between the two? When does something cross the line? And, when does something shift from merely a “bad habit” to an addiction?

“Good habits” are relatively straightforward. Automatic responses to walking, eating, and even driving are habits that are essential to the daily lives of most people.

Some habits require more work than others, like brushing your teeth, punctuality, and exercising, as-well-as much more specialized habits, like practicing an instrument or gymnastics. All of these contribute to the well-being of the one who practices them enhancing life to one degree or another.

Conversely, "bad habits" are learned behaviors that contribute negatively to your life. For example, nail-biting, sleeping late, and eating too much fast food. But when is something merely a bad habit, and when does it become a full-fledged addiction?

PsychologyToday defines addiction as the following.
"A condition that results when a person ingests a substance or engages in an activity that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others."

Bad Habits and Addictions

Biting your nails may not be the best idea, but it's not going to interfere severely with your ordinary life duties—at least not too much. It's not going to ruin your relationships and engulf significant amounts of your time and money. And indulging in McDonald's a few more times than you should, also isn't going to shatter your soul and make you so fixated on your burger and fries that you lose sight of everything else. But, know that there are similarities.
"Similarly, both habits and addictions alter your brains neural pathways, changing your brain chemistry so that certian actions and behaviours become second nature to you. They can even both be compulsive to a certain extent."
The most significant differences between the two are, bad habits serve as an inconvenience, an unhealthy pattern that may indeed hurt you but will not turn your life upside down. Addiction, on the other hand, will enslave you in a never-ending cycle of pain and guilt that can seem impossible to end.

Underlying Causes

While we've discussed "what is an addiction," the "what" is rarely as helpful as the "why." Why do we form addictions? Why allow ourselves to become enslaved to things that will ruin our lives?

Rarely do we think before the first drink, the first glance at pornography or the first inhale of a cigarette, that we are stepping into a potential addiction headfirst. And sometimes, we may not be.

Addictions can be formed from things that are harmless in moderation (e.g. alcohol, sugar, social media), or from things that are inherently harmful (e.g. heroin, cocaine, nicotine).

But even if a substance or behavior is inherently dangerous or problematic, that doesn't mean that one use automatically makes you an addict. Addiction is formed over months, sometimes years.

As mentioned earlier, addiction is our brain trying to put us on the quickest possible path from unhappy to happy, like a railroad laying the track for a train to move easily from one station to the next. Therein lies the root.
"Addictions are our brain's perceived cure for unhappiness."
These behaviors almost always arise from something missing the addict's life—once learned, acting out can be triggered by frustration, loneliness, anger, weariness, or just plain sadness.

Instead of a more healthy way to cheer you up, your brain turns to the best method it knows to bring you to a better place—even though, ultimately, such disempowering methods will only bring you lower.

Addiction and the Human Needs

In a TEDx Talk by Zoe Chance, she references a theory by motivational speaker and self-help author Tony Robbins that there are six essential human needs. She explains that usually if something meets three of these needs, it is a prime candidate to become an addiction. What are the six needs?

Significance, certainty, security, uncertainty, connection, and growth. Think about it. Each of us needs these in our lives. We need to grow, to connect, to find significance, security, certainty, and yes, a little bit of uncertainty to keep our lives interesting. If your life is missing any of these things, it leaves you vulnerable to turn to unhealthy and unfavorable means of filling these voids.

Once you've fallen into an addiction, is all hope lost? Far from it. A study released by The Harvard Mental Health Letter estimated that least fifty percent of alcohol addicts alone eventually recover from their substance abuse. Not everyone will, but regardless of how it feels, anyone can.

How? We'll cover that later in the series. But first, let's dig deeper into the different types of addiction and how they affect our lives. For now, check out the Zoe's TED Talk below.

Other articles in this 7-part series:

  1. (This article)
  2. Stages of Addiction: Are You Addicted?
  3. Substance Abuse: The Catalyst for Drug Addiction
  4. Sexual Addictions: The Science and Psychology
  5. Food Addictions: It's Not Just About Food
  6. Entertainment Addiction: Are We Escaping Reality?
  7. Breaking an Addiction: How to Set Yourself Free