I have outlined the dangers of sugar: it is an addictive substance with actual withdrawal symptoms. I have also explained the far-reaching consequences of what is jokingly called a “shopping addiction.” As such, I have outlined both substance and behavioural addictions, a distinction which I will corroborate below. But first, how do you become addicted?
Starting Point Not everyone becomes addicted just because they go shopping a lot, game a lot or because they have done drugs, although the latter has a much higher percentage of ending in substance addiction. The starting point tends to be already having an addictive or obsessive personality, whilst you're in the process of looking for a type of escape. The need for an escape often presents itself with people under longer periods of stress. It is true that the need for an escape tends to be most visible in people who are also visibly unhappy, alone and/or hormonally and emotionally unbalanced. But watch out for this. People can be great actors. If they are able to hide addictions, they must have been able to hide their stress or their need for an escape as well. And vice versa. The better people can hide their duress and their negative state of mind, the better they tend to be at hiding their addictions as well. Do not just assume that it is those who are “visibly” worst off that are the most at risk for developing an addiction. Assumptions about someone’s mental state, before and after addictions are discovered, are attributing to the stigma surrounding it. This might lead all parties affected, the addict and their closest relations, to try to avoid the addiction coming out and seeking help. Do not stigmatise.
Substance Abuse and the Physical Having established the need for an escape, most people turn to the most obvious: if you can’t stop thinking about everything that is wrong, make sure you stop thinking. Alcohol as a result, is an extremely popular substance for addiction. But as even binge-drinking is becoming increasingly normalised, alcohol won’t cut it. A higher high is needed. As a result, some people turn to drugs.
There are many different drugs made out of many different substances. There is a large difference between the physical effects caused by "downers" such as weed, "uppers" such as cocaine and heroine or hallucinogens such as LSD. What I would like to discuss here is the general process in which the body becomes dependent on these substances, which is most frequently seen with "uppers." When a drug enters the body for the first time, the following processes are likely to occur: the negative feelings and thoughts become repressed or simply drowned out. They do not cease to exist, they are simply put in a back corner of the mind. On the forefront of the mind is the sensation derived from the drug. This can be a sense of peace (downers), but also of invincibility, high energy (uppers) or the experience of a heightened conciousness (hallucinogens). The main focus here is that the experience is pleasant. The drug is experienced as pleasant as it has triggered increased levels of dopamine firing in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter mainly responsible for learning due to reward and punishment systems. A lot of dopamine makes us happy. At least a lot happier than before we used the drug and were looking for an escape. The issue now becomes the after-effect. A drug tends to be a foreign, external and chemical product that has entered the body, and is now leaving its systems as it is being broken down. The effects wear off, and we are now back at our starting point, but likely we feel even worse. To make up for the increased dopamine firing we just experienced, the production of it comes to a halt. A decrease in dopamine firing is experienced as punishment, at least on a neurological level. Having the drug makes us happy, not having the drug makes us feel punished. It is not surprising many people go back for more. But here is the issue: the more we use of the drug, the more we need to get the same kind of high. Why? Because if there is one thing our body is great at its adaptation. Although the drug is not a product of the body, the body can in fact adapt to its effects. Once you have taken cocaine multiple times your body will adapt, as if it is expecting the drug. This is especially noticeable for drug-users who tend to "take a hit" on the same location, with the same people, at the same time. The brain learns to make these associations, and adapts accordingly, preparing itself for the drug to enter the system. In the case of cocaine, which is an "upper," which increases the speed of body functioning, the body slows itself down. Processes such as digestion are being slowed down so the drug can enter the system without having the disruptive effects experienced previously. But of course, the drug is being taken because the user wants its disruptive effects. As a result more and more is being taken. With some drugs, mainly the extreme "uppers" such as heroine, they say one time usage is enough to become addicted, both mentally and physically. Want to know something funny? This physical adaptation doesn't just happen with what we perceive as hard-drugs. The same kind of adaptation process happen with coffee. Caffeine is a socially acceptable "upper" on which millions are physically dependent. Check yourself in the morning, your physical processes have slowed themselves down as well, expecting a "hit" of caffeine.
Behavioural Abuse and the Mental A large part that gives substance addiction its "status" in psychology is in fact its physical dependency. Addictions that were not based on physical processes were often disregarded. As such it is unsurprising that it took much longer for behavioural addictions to become “a thing.” But not only was there no substance being entered into the body, the behaviours engaged in are more societally acceptable than injecting heroine, and therefore more difficult to categorise as problematic.
But if we take away the physical dependency on a substance, the processes that happen on a neurological level are quite similar. Looking for an escape we engage in a certain behaviour. This behaviour turns out be pleasant, increased dopamine firing occurs. We are happy and attribute this to the behaviour we have just engaged in. We have now learned that this behaviour leads to increased feelings of happiness. It is exactly the escape we wanted. We decide to engage in the behaviour more and more. We game for days without seeing anyone. We spend or gamble all our money away, and then some. The negative consequences are piling up, our stress levels increase and as a result we turn to our escape even more frequently: addiction is a very vicious cycle.
An important qualifier of addiction is the inability to properly function within society. The first behavioural addiction as such to be recognised was that of pathological gambling. It is quite obvious you have a problem if you can no longer pay for your food, mortgage and family as you spend all your money in the casino each night.
As I have mentioned before, I am glad that behavioural addictions are increasingly receiving both social and academic attention. What I am not keen on is the increasing stigmatisation, which is also seen with substance addictions. As I have outlined, becoming addicted starts with looking for an escape from a stressor. We all have stressors: study, work, family, relationships, financial situations, (mental) health. There are endless things to be stressed about. So I would like to end the article with saying this: Don't stigmatise an addict. They are neither bad nor weak people. They were dealt a situation which they felt unable to deal with. As a coping mechanism they turned to a substance or a behaviour that took the struggle away, if only temporarily, and then made it worse. The choice made was the wrong one. But it could have been just that one choice. That is not enough to base your judgement of someone on. If you are struggling, or know someone who is, seek help. You need to learn the proper coping mechanisms to deal with life. Life is hard. Getting addicted is much easier.