The age-old question of nature versus nurture has plagued rehabilitation specialists ever since addiction became an identifiable disease. Why do some people succumb to addictive behaviour where others do not, and why do addictions form in the first place? Why is it so hard for an addict to quit something that has such negative effects on their life?
Many people have theorised about these questions over the years, and modern scientists have a few (although not all) of the answers. One thing everyone can agree on is that the fault does not lie with the person struggling; in fact, they’re fighting a battle that few of us can ever hope to fully understand.
If you are someone struggling with an addiction, this article is for you. We are going to look into some of the theories around the interaction of how you think and what your body does, and how that intersection can work to perpetuate an addiction.
The Physiology of Addiction
First of all, we need to talk about the “reward circuit” of your brain. It is the highway for dopamine in your brain that is designed to reward you when you do something helpful for your body. When you do something like sleep when you’re tired, or drink when you’re thirsty, your body releases a little burst of dopamine as a reward for taking that action. However, because drugs like alcohol release dopamine when you take them, this system becomes twisted and starts to reward you for continuing that behaviour. That induces a learning response – “drugs are good” – and helps to create a strong addiction.
Furthermore, once your reward circuit is influenced by so much of the neurotransmitter dopamine, it can become desensitised to lower levels of it. In order to get that warm, fuzzy feeling, you need to take more and more of the drug, and so the addiction grows. It’s important to understand that your brain, quite literally, undergoes a physical change.
Addictions aren’t the weakness of will that a lot of people take them to be; they’re a genuine battle against a learning centre that implores you to keep going, keep taking more, even if it’s ruining your life.
The Psychology of Addiction
What about the psychology of it all? How do your experiences and thought processes play into the formation and continuation of addiction? Theories around this aspect of addiction tend to tie into the reward circuit.
The “positive-incentive” theory suggests that drug addicts continue taking substances because of the dopamine release that the actual drug releases. A smaller denomination of this idea called the “incentive-sensitization” theory says that people continue to take drugs because of the craving that comes after. They crave the craving, because that is what signals an incoming release of dopamine. This has a lot of support in the scientific community because it can account for how addiction forms and continues.
This theory revolves around the concept of learning. An addict learns to anticipate a dopamine release, either from craving a drug or simply taking it, and the behaviour of substance abuse is rewarded and strengthened. Combined with the physiological triggers, a very strong addiction is formed. This is why many substance abuse treatment centres tackle treatments holistically; untangling an addiction requires coming at it from all sides, unpicking the learned behaviours and re-aligning the physiology of the brain.
Currently, we don’t have an answer to why some people form addictions while others do not. Some cite genetics, others psychology, but the truth is that these are, for the moment, educated guesses.
What is most important is to remember that, despite these elements of psychology and physiology, you ultimately have control over who you are and what you choose to do. Seeking treatment for an addiction is like seeking treatment for any other illness, and is the smartest thing to do when you find yourself caught in that destructive spiral.
It’s time to break the cycle.
Seek help to beat your addiction.
Zen Detox is a wellness retreat in New Zealand that was created to provide a safe haven for those struggling with addiction. We work with our clients to resolve the mental, physical, emotional and environmental aspects of addiction, and restore their relationships with friends and family. If you or someone you know needs help, give us a call today.