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.