How Does Addiction Work?
In its most basic form, addiction is the uncontrolled taking of a substance or participation in an action to the point of causing harm. How does addiction work? According to the charity Action on Addiction, around one in every three people in the United Kingdom are addicted to something. Two of the most common addictive substances are alcohol and drugs. The latter may refer to either prescription drugs or illegal narcotics. While consumption of addictive substances can be pleasurable initially, if it is left unchecked it can very quickly spiral into a vicious cycle from which escape can be extremely difficult.
There are numerous reasons why people become addicted to things. In the case of alcohol, many people enjoy a pint in the pub or a glass of wine in the evening. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Taken in moderation, alcohol consumption is a pleasant and enjoyable activity. If someone has experienced a recent trauma or is otherwise experiencing difficulty in their professional or personal lives, alcohol seemingly provides a safety net and a way in which to drown out sorrows. This is commonly where alcoholism begins. In the case of drugs, these substances can produce feelings of ecstasy and euphoria which once experienced quickly become addictive and create a strong desire to repeat again and again.
The temptation to try an addictive substance may arise through peer pressure, simple curiosity or a desire to relieve stress or escape from boredom or depression. Drugs such as cannabis can seem attractive for their ability to induce feelings of relaxation and happiness in the user whereas stimulants such as cocaine can give the user energy, happiness and overconfidence – but the effects are short-lived, making cocaine especially addictive.
Once an addiction takes hold, it becomes increasingly difficult to control or overcome. When a substance is taken over an extended period of time, the body becomes increasingly tolerant of it. The desire to stop may be there, but the prospect of facing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms as the body loses its tolerance and begins to recover can be discouraging. However, there is no other way to break the cycle that addiction creates but to face those withdrawal symptoms.
Addiction affects many parts of the body, the liver is especially at risk from alcohol abuse, but the organ most affected is the brain. Alcohol or substance addiction induces the brain to produce large quantities of dopamine, which triggers the brain’s reward system. As time goes by and the addiction becomes stronger, the brain gradually loses the ability to produce normal amounts of dopamine on its own. This is why activities which once seemed so enjoyable to the addict lose their appeal when not under the influence.
This characteristic is also what separates addiction from dependence. The two are often assumed to be identical, but dependence is where a person develops a tolerance of a substance, whereas addiction is where the person’s whole brain chemistry is altered. Addiction is also characterised by the insatiable desire to use drugs, even despite being aware of the harm it does.
Addiction can have a deeply adverse effect on personal and professional relationships. A person in the throes of addiction can become moody and depressed and prone to physical and verbal outbursts. Addiction affects concentration and awareness as well, meaning that completing simple tasks can often prove problematic.
Long-term addiction can also lead to potentially fatal organ damage or failure. In the case of certain types of substance abuse, addiction can also induce long-term psychological ailments such as psychosis and paranoia. For those who live with an addict, life can become increasingly unstable and stressful, especially as addicts’ behaviour is frequently unpredictable.
Identifying an addiction is no different to diagnosing any other illness. Generally, a person is identified as an addict if they meet a designated set of criteria. Among the common symptoms of addiction is a lack of control over the amount of substance the person takes. Some addicts may express a desire to reduce or cut out the substance altogether but cannot do so.
They may go to extreme lengths to obtain quantities of their preferred drug and, similarly, their addiction may take priority in their lives, superseding all other roles and responsibilities such as work and home life, as previously mentioned. In more extreme cases, addicts may continue their addiction even when the psychological and physical effects on themselves become apparent.
While it is possible to wean oneself off addictive substances, it is much more advisable to seek professional help. Rehabilitation centres offer structured programs to assist addicts in removing harmful substances from their systems. The same is true for Alcoholics Anonymous, who offer a 12-step programme aimed at helping its clients to achieve sobriety. As the name implies, people suffering from alcohol abuse can expect a safe and welcoming environment which respects privacy and does not encourage the divulgence of private information.
Addiction, whilst a deeply unpleasant malady, can be treated and addicts can return to normal lives having curbed their cravings. If you or anyone you know s suffering from any form of addiction, do not hesitate to contact the appropriate medical teams. Recovery from addiction takes time and patience, but the end result is always worthwhile.
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