Improvement

The Science Behind Addiction And How You Can Kick It

Mark Twain said that quitting an addiction to tobacco was easy; he had done it often. But what is an addiction? According to Psychology Today, an accepted definition for an addiction is: ‘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.’

We intuitively know what an addiction is; when a behaviour becomes an addiction is more problematic. Is someone watching television for eight hours a day an addiction? Do two cigarettes a day constitute an addiction? Is gambling £10 a day an addiction?

Quite what causes a treat to lapse into an addiction is open to debate. Addictions such as smoking and drug abuse will arise as some form of biological alteration, where the brain and body decides that it likes a certain chemical and wants more. When an attractive and pleasurable behaviour occurs in the animal brain the neurotransmitter dopamine is released into the system, but the brain can grow to desire more, and the initial hit is not enough – combine that with cues around us such as availability and advertising, and the hit becomes irresistible.

Other addictions may be generated by one’s life situation or state of mind. Behaviours such as polishing off pints of alcohol, placing £100 on Arsenal to win, and purchasing wigs do not seem rational or even comparable, but each may counteract a feeling of emotional stress. That stress might be counteracted by one behaviour, or many; a highly-addictive personality might swap between an uncontrollable need for alcohol or drugs, simply because they must quell the needy parts of their behaviour.

This substitution method at least gives an option for the person desperate to kick a habit. Smokers worldwide, for example, have tried many methods of breaking their addiction such as gums and nicotine patches, with varying results. E-cigarettes however not only recreate the addictive chemical element of nicotine, but also the physical actions of lifting a tool to the mouth and drawing.

It is perhaps no surprise then that sales of patches and gum fell by 3% last year, dropping for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile vaping device sales grew by 75%, thanks to the efforts of scientifically astute companies such as EL-Science, creating an alternative to traditional smoking that’s fun, funky and a viable alternative to smoking.

According to journalist Johann Hari, who has researched drug addiction across the globe, a combination of cues and an unhappy, deprived lifestyle can often be the impetus behind an addiction. His theory, revealed in the Huffington Post, was partially based on experiments on rats that had developed an addiction to drugged water before being placed in more pleasant conditions and subsequently kicking their habits.

Combine that with worldwide evidence that seems to suggest placing people in recuperative, replenishing and pleasant environments to conquer their demons, as opposed to punishing them, and the likelihood of success is higher. Much like prisoners, removing negative cues and giving a sufferer a desire to achieve, and more than anything, human connections, seems to work.

July 16, 2015

Understanding Addiction

Are you unable to put down your smart phone? Maybe over eating or drinking is your problem? Perhaps you’re indulging in too many prescription pills? Whether someone is overcoming an illegal or legal addiction is irrelevant. Most addictive behaviours can be treated similarly and have a similar pattern and path. Once these are understood, it is much easier to overcome any type of addiction.

Addiction in it’s most basic form, is excessive behaviour. The difference between regular behaviour and an addiction, is that regular behaviour can be ceased without distress and can be absent from ones life, without causing a significant impact.

In today’s society we have many behaviours than can easily lead to addictions. The following scenario depicts an addictive behaviour, associated with mobile phone use.

You hear the tone of your phone go off during a funeral. Instead of switching it off or declining the call; you choose to pick it up and start a conversation. You therefore need to answer your phone, regardless of your physical situation. In this instance, you may have an addictive behaviour attached to the use of your mobile phone.

Why this person felt inclined to answer the call, could have been, for one of two reasons. Either they did it automatically and neglected to notice their surroundings or they felt an overwhelming compulsion to answer it. In the later, they may have needed to answer the call to relieve distress or considerable discomfort they felt, when the phone rang.

This would have occurred through conditioning. Behavioural Psychologists such as Pavolv and Skinner, did extensive research into how behaviours were learned, maintained and extinguished. This has been exceptionally helpful in the field of addiction.

According to behavioural psychologists, the first step toward changing behaviour, is recognising it. For example; alcoholism can’t be treated without the drinker being aware they have a problem. So if you or someone you know has a problem that goes unnoticed; the behaviour isn’t likely to change.

Once the behaviour is recognised as being excessive, measures can be taken to correct it. In most cases this will involve acknowledging and understanding triggers which lead to the behaviour. Triggers are those things in life which prompt a behaviour. Using the scenario above; the ring tone would be considered the trigger and answering the phone, the conditioned behaviour.

Once a behaviour is learned and has been maintained, it can be difficult to extinguish. Maintenance usually occurs so the person can avoid the negative consequences of avoiding the behaviour. For example, alcoholics and drug abusers maintain their addiction, by knowing they need to ingest their desired substance, to avoid withdrawal.

Avoiding negative consequences can be a powerful maintenance tool. Once this is overcome, the process of extinguishing can commence. This involves avoiding the behaviour and reprogramming the conditioning process. With the mobile phone scenario, an example of reconditioning could involve ignoring the ring tone so it diminishes the conditioned behaviour. It may cause the person considerable discomfort to initially ignore the tone, but after a time, it would become much easier.

To alter the behaviour to answer the phone only when appropriate; the tone should be changed and the behaviour of only answering at specific times, would be practised. This would encourage a less addictive behaviour. Similar practices are done with food intake, such as eating only at the table or designating food free zones, such as the lounge room, where people often snack on unhealthy foods.

In theory, overcoming addictions is quite simple. However, emotions complicates the process. If you view an excessive behaviour as a conditioned, rather than emotional behaviour, your chance of overcoming it will be increased.

By Kim Chartres

August 15, 2014