Addiction. It’s a word that conjures up all sorts of images and visceral reactions. In this country, we’ve often viewed addiction as a moral failing, assuming that folks struggling with various forms of dependence behaviors have an issue of willpower and control. But what if what we’ve long assumed and internalized isn’t entirely correct? What if addiction is less about willpower and more about loneliness, poor emotion regulation, impulse control issues, and maladaptive coping skills. What if addiction, in all its various forms, is an attempt to solve an underlying problem, which then becomes a whole new problem of its own?
Substance Use Disorders:
When the topic of addiction comes up, substance addictions are what most often come to mind. It is the addiction often portrayed in pop culture, and statistically speaking, substance misuse and use disorders will have the most obvious impact on families and employment, negatively affecting mental, emotional, and physical well-being. With overdose rates in this country continuing to rise annually, and alcohol still ranking high as the top, most addictive “drug” in the country, substance misuse and substance use disorders are an epidemic. Basically, we all know someone who struggles with this disorder in some form or another.
Substance use disorders and mental health disorders are commonly co-occurring, with many people not getting the help they need. As hypothesized earlier, many will begin using drugs and alcohol to reduce the negative effects of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and untreated/undiagnosed ADHD. Those people who develop a substance use disorder, become dependent upon the drugs physical properties, choosing to self-medicate the often unpleasant symptoms they regularly face. These individuals also become emotionally dependent as they continue to seek the positive, albeit short-lived, feelings the substance produces, and to avoid the physical and emotional pain and discomfort they are left with in the substance’s absence. It is important to remember that even substances that are traditionally thought of as “non addictive”, can still cause a person to be dependent on their substance due to the effect it has on their mood.
Behavioral addictions are another common addiction, although these disorders are often not seen and recognized as easily because there is often a lack of obvious physical signs. During behavioral addiction cycles, the levels of dopamine (our happy hormone) rise, similar to that of someone using drugs. Someone involved with behavioral addictions chases that same “high” to feel good. These behaviors are compulsive and difficult to stop. Below are several of the more commonly occurring behavior addictions.
Many states have enacted laws that have legalized online gambling, making it readily accessible. On the one hand, this can be seen as a boon for a free-market, and personal liberty; on the other hand, it creates an opportunity for addiction to take root and grow. As has often been theorized, addictions grow in secrecy. Engaging in compulsive gambling from the comfort of one’s own home or phone, enables an insidious dependence to blossom.
One can become addicted to any type of gambling, and the loss of money can cause severe financial problems, loss of job, strained relationships, legal issues, mental health concerns and high rates of suicide attempts. While some states have pushed for stricter controls on the industry to offset the damaging impacts of gambling addiction, at the end of the day, without proper help and intervention, the individual can and often will continue to seek out other forms of gambling to scratch the proverbial itch.
Sex addiction is another common behavioral addiction. Someone who has an addiction to sex (which can also include addictions to love, porn, and/or masturbation) uses their preferred sexual act as their “drug of choice”. Sex/Love addicts seek out the varying levels of dopamine elevation that one experiences through orgasm, viewing sexual content, or engaging in mutual adoration. Individuals can suffer from the same consequences as anyone else with a severe behavioral addiction: loss of relationship, employment, financial concerns, poor self-image and self-esteem, emotional and/or physical abuse. Additionally there is an added layer of risk with this particular type of addiction as sexual health concerns often arise and can go unchecked.
Food addiction is common and often goes mislabeled because the prevailing assumptions about food and body size are rooted in body shaming and fat-phobic ideas. People become addicted to food for the same reason they become addicted to gambling, sex, drugs, or any behavior: it feels good, and seems to help with something else they are struggling with. Food addiction can lead to the development of severe health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Additionally, those struggling with food addiction battle shame, low self-esteem, internalized fat phobia, and often undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorders.
Working with a therapist who understands how this particular addiction can manifest and how to best support the individual as they learn a new relationship with food and their body is the first step on the road to recovery.
Shopping Addiction/Impulsive Spending:
Compulsive spending can cause financial problems such as debt and bankruptcy, strained relationships and emotional distress. Like all other behaviors and substances, someone with this condition has a preoccupation with their preferred activity: shopping and spending. The individual will often try to hide, justify, and deny their issue as much as possible, because much like food, we need clothing and supplies to survive. Identifying the degree to which this behavior is and is not helpful, understanding the underlying triggers and conditions that precede this behavior, and learning new ways to cope with the inevitable distress and discomfort of being a human being is where recovery begins.
Internet & Social Media Addiction:
The fastest growing addiction in our culture is internet addiction; specifically social media and gaming addictions. Our collective dependence on social media has caused society to rely on the validation of others, depending upon constant and instant gratification. Research indicates this brave new world has led to increased social isolation and mental health issues. Case in point: addiction to video games has caused a documented rise in gambling addiction, promoting a lack of physical activity and increased social isolation. These behaviors may not be what comes to someone’s mind when one thinks of addiction but individuals heavily rely on these behaviors which can make them problems.
Last but not least, it’s important to note that not everyone who engages in these behaviors will develop an addiction, but when these activities begin to negatively impact an individual’s life, relationships, and well-being, it may be indicative of an addiction. Signs of addiction often include increased tolerance for substances or behaviors, withdrawal symptoms, loss of control, and continued engagement despite negative consequences. Seeking professional help and support from loved ones is important in addressing addiction, and its associated issues.
Help is available for individuals suffering from all forms of addictions. Despite how isolated and alone one feels, there is someone out there who has experienced a similar story. Therapy, community support groups, and inpatient/outpatient treatment facilities all offer various ways of addressing the behaviors and underlying causes and conditions triggering them. Additionally, help is available for family members who suffer from the pain of living with and witnessing a person in active addiction.
We are not meant to live life in isolation. The idea of the self-made, solitary person is a myth. Humans are pack animals, dependent upon one another for our personal development and recovery. We are here when you are ready.