“What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.”
Alice Miller, psychotherapist and author
Many of us at some time in our life will experience addiction. There are, after all, many things that we may find becoming more and more of a challenging issue and with which it is increasingly difficult to change our relationship. Addiction is far more prevalent than just the misuse of legal and illegal drugs such as alcohol and cocaine; addiction to work, to social media, to online shopping, to gambling, to exercise, to sex or pornography, to food are all commonly encountered in modern society; as addictions have been, in one form or another, for as long as there have been people to become addicted.
What is addiction? How do we know if we are suffering with an addiction? An addiction is simply something we do too much of; behaviour, such as misusing a drug, which we continue to engage in despite clear and objective evidence of the harm which that behaviour is causing us. It may be physical or emotional harm to us or to our relationships with those who matter to us.
Why would we carry on doing something that is hurting us or those we care about? It may at first sight appear strange or illogical, but suffering with an addiction is definitely not an indication that we are morally ‘weak’ or unintelligent.
The reasons and causes for our vulnerability to continuing to engage in behaviour despite its obvious negative consequences are often not straightforward, but in simple terms it is because we are suffering with the distorting effects of our experience of and beliefs in the value which that behaviour provides to us.
Addiction behaviour serves a purpose for us. After all, we don’t do anything for no reason; and if we are prepared to carry on doing something despite the evidence of the damage it’s doing, presumably there’s a pretty good reason to carry on, at least from our perspective. We find it hard to see the bigger picture of our lives and our future beyond that compelling reason.
Where does addiction come from?
Children may be likened to little sponges, their purpose to ‘soak up’ all of the important things they need in childhood. Things such as sufficient nurturing from care-givers: feeling close to, wanted, loved, validated and valued; receiving adequate nutrition; feeling protected, safe to explore the world; those things sufficient to gain the means to grow and develop physically and emotionally.
All of these are crucial requirements that if not met due to care givers’ or others’ inconsistent or distressing behaviour, rejection, neglect or other forms of abuse or trauma will leave the child in emotional and physical deficit, frustrated, still needing to absorb what’s missing.
If the years pass and our needs remain unmet, our experience of others and our expectations of how others may behave towards us will become more and more engrained and established. Those negative or unfulfilling experiences will influence how we see ourselves, others and the world, and so believe things to be. Such distorted beliefs are unlikely to help us to effectively acquire and sufficiently accumulate what is missing.
Our unmet needs will inevitably be mirrored in our brain’s sensitivity and how it responds to experiences and certain stimuli. This, in turn, may lead us to become vulnerable to behaviours that in some way meet our persisting frustrated needs, even if those behaviours may bring profoundly negative consequences into our lives through our persisting engagement in them.
How does addiction happen?
Depending on the nature of our unmet needs, on encountering or being introduced by others, such as parents, siblings or friends, to certain behaviours, we may find ourselves experiencing gratifying sensations consistent with our brain’s sensitivity to certain stimuli.
For instance, if we grow up in an environment in which alcohol or other drugs are significantly present, it is likely that we will have the message that drug use may be helpful engrained into our belief system. On using those drugs and finding them apparently able to address our unmet needs, we will have had that message confirmed and reinforced.
It is entirely understandable that, on finding ourselves able to engage with a behaviour that may conveniently provide to us, at least in terms of our brain’s sensitivity, with something similar to what we had been missing and in need of from an early age, we may not want to let go of it; rather than suffering that unmet need all over again, we hang on to what we’ve found.
Having gained a behaviour that we believe meets our unmet needs, we are likely to return to it or engage in it more intensively or for longer on encountering a life challenge that we experience as particularly disruptive or distressing.
Depending upon our unmet needs and hence our brain’s sensitivity, different life challenges will affect us differently, will be more or less easily coped with, will trigger our vulnerability to addictive behaviour more or less effectively.
We may, for example, suffer with depression and possess beliefs about the value of alcohol for forgetting negative memories and feelings or the value of social media for raising our mood on believing that we belong and are accepted in online communities.
However, over-reliance upon a single strategy to cope with challenges such as depression, which may have complex causes, is unlikely to provide us with the relief we seek. Furthermore, addiction behaviours inevitably bring with them unintended and negative consequences, especially in the long-term, thus compounding the challenges we may face.
Alcohol may help us to temporarily obscure bad memories, but addiction to alcohol may lead to significant compromises in other areas of our life, such as deterioration in our work performance or relationships. Long-term misuse of alcohol will certainly substantially increase our vulnerability to various severe and chronic physical health conditions, as well as being itself a long-term depressant and so likely to worsen the depression that we had hoped it would help us alleviate.
How do we overcome addiction?
There are many ways that have been found over the years to be helpful in successfully addressing identified addiction. The most consistently successful of these therapeutic approaches are those that acknowledge and seek to support us to address the underlying cause of our addiction vulnerability: the unmet needs.
By focusing upon strategies that enable us to fulfil those unmet needs in ways that will be both effective and remain helpful to us in the long-term, rather than further adding to our problems, we can be assisted to progress towards an authentic and hence sustainable future free of addiction behaviour.
That may be through re-introducing more positive and supportive relationships into our life by reconnecting with family members, friends or colleagues we can trust. It may be by seeking new relationships, perhaps with those with whom we share a mutual interest in a therapeutically valuable activity. There may be additional activities and interests that we may consider engaging in which would also contribute significantly to our unmet needs.
Establishing and maintaining a schedule of interactions and activities that provides us with daily emotional nourishment, restoration and repair and hence effectively addresses our unmet needs is an important component of such an approach.
Alongside seeking ways to fulfil our unmet needs, we may reinforce our progress and likelihood of a successful outcome by effectively challenging our perception of, changing our thoughts and behaviour relating to and so disrupting and dismantling our misplaced beliefs in the value of the addiction behaviour.
In combination, these strategies comprise an approach that has been proven consistently successful in enabling many thousands of people to address their addiction behaviour over the last three decades.
In the case of moderate addiction of shorter duration, we may achieve useful progress, ideally with the support of others whom we trust, through a gradual reduction of the addiction activity combined with the substitution of positive interactions and activities, possibly including mutual support groups and the implementation of basic cravings management techniques obtainable via the website links provided below.
For more severe addiction behaviour, it is recommended that professional support via a structured programme specific to the addiction and which may include or be based around a course of one to one therapy be sought.
Here are some useful resources providing information on managing your own or another’s addiction behaviour: