From the facts alone, one can easily jump to quick conclusions about the problem of addiction in the United States. According to statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), as many as 19.7 million adult Americans battled a substance use disorder in 2017. That same year, 1 in 8 adults said they struggled with drug use and alcohol use disorders at the same time. Addiction is a costly burden to America at large—the country has bled as much as $740 billion on lost workplace productivity, healthcare related to substance abuse, and crime linked to addicted behaviors.
But speaking up about addiction is tricky ground. Among members of the general public, addiction is often coded as a social scourge; to call someone an “addict” means to regard them as dirty, criminal, or subhuman. Seldom does the discussion on addiction broach upon its true nature: as a complex, but treatable disease. As a consequence, those who suffer from the symptoms often spiral even deeper into their addiction, withdraw from their relationships and communities, and lose hope in living life differently.
This article means to delve into the manifold nature of addiction, with knowledge taken from the field of human psychology. It also means to brief you about the causes, different types, and distinctive symptoms of addiction to a substance or behavior. And last but not least, it means to bring the psychology of recovery to the fore—which may be helpful if you, or someone dear to you, is suffering from addiction. Being kind in a difficult situation—even in simple ways such as through sharing accurate info, admitting your problems to a medical professional, supporting someone through group therapy, or using wearables to motivate yourself—could spur the reversal from addiction to permanent, meaningful recovery.
Here’s a closer look at everything you need to know about the psychology of addiction.
What is Addiction?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines addiction as a brain disease that manifests in repeated and compulsive use of an addictive substance, despite imminently harmful consequences.
This definition can also be expanded to include addictive behaviors, such as gambling. What links gambling to substance abuse is the rewarding effect, which compels a user to repeat consumption or engagement—often to a greater degree than before.
Persons suffering from addiction have difficulty breaking the cycle despite being faced with detrimental consequences. They are hooked on the feeling of intoxication or the relief that comes with the source of their addiction.
Addiction is not synonymous with misuse, or the incorrect, excessive, or non-therapeutic usage of a substance. An instance of misuse cannot always be judged as a lead-in to addiction. But the two are related in that addiction is often a consequence of repeated misuse—in these cases, the escalated misuse results in a long-term inability to cease or moderate substance intake.
What are the Common Types of Addiction, and What Causes Them?
Addiction can be classified into two main categories: addiction to a substance and addiction to a behavior. Common types under the former are the following:
Under the latter, the following are prevalent types of addiction or still being studied as falling under addictive behavior:
Addiction induces a highly motivated state that prunes the synapses in the prefrontal cortex, or the part of the human brain that governs the most complex cognitive behaviors. As a result, the brain is wired to focus only on cues that relate to the addictive substance or activity. After repeated engagement, it will seem to block out everything else.
Though it is difficult to predict who will develop a compulsive substance abuse or behavior disorder—one cannot ascribe a singular profile to a so-called “addict”—certain factors may contribute to a person’s risk or susceptibility to addiction. Among them are the following:
Suffice to say, people can fall into addiction for myriad reasons—they may want to prolong a high, to relieve stress, to please their peers, or even to improve their performance at work—and as such, judgment calls on their situation are very hard to make.
What are the Major Symptoms of Addiction?
Over time, addiction can wreak havoc over the brain functions that are related to learning, memory, judgment, decision making, and behavior control. But the telltale consequence of addiction is impairment—whether it is over one’s usage or engagement, over one’s relationships, or over one’s daily routine. Overall, there will be impairment over one’s awareness of how big a toll their addiction is taking on them.
If one checks off on at least two of the following symptoms, they may be suffering from a disorder:
Online magazine and psychology authority Psychology Today cites the presence of 2 to 3 of these symptoms as indicative of a mild addiction; 4 to 5 of these symptoms, a moderate addiction; and 6 or more of these symptoms, a severe addiction.
Debunking Some Myths on the Nature of Addiction
There’s no doubt that addiction is a very serious problem whose ramifications span the user, their families, their romantic partners, their colleagues, and their communities at large. Indeed, many chalk up addiction as something that’s ruined their homes, their social lives, their careers, and their finances. But virulent anger towards those suffering from addiction—such that they are dehumanized or imprinted with a stigma for the rest of their lives—will help no one in the long run. It is only through understanding addiction, and undoing the circumstances that perpetuate it, that we can rid society of it for good.
With that in mind, there are three prevalent myths about addiction that this article seeks to address.
We cannot stigmatize or dehumanize those who experience addiction; neither can we be too hard on ourselves if it is a reality we know well. Luckily, there are many ways to break the cycle. The path to recovery from addiction is a difficult one to walk, but there is room on it for everyone—including you and your loved ones.
The Psychology of Recovery
As grave as the changes in the nervous system may be post-addiction, they are actually reversible after the substance abuse or addictive behavior has stopped. Within about five years of being clean, the synaptic density in one’s brain may be restored, and one can go back to a healthy and productive life.
This is not to say that there will be no bumps in the road. These days, medical professionals acknowledge the frequency of relapses and tailor their rehabilitative approaches accordingly. Full treatment of addiction is geared toward both prevention and management of current use, and may entail the following steps to be done in a clinic, doctor’s office, or inpatient facility:
If a person previously suffering from addiction successfully kicks their habit, returns to their family and community prepared to inhabit their proper social roles, rehabilitates their physical and mental health, and benefits from evidence-based treatment, then there is a high likelihood that they’ve achieved recovery and can sustain it in the long term.
Conclusion: Developing Strength and Maturity while Recovering from Addiction
Recovery from addiction may be a long and arduous journey to make, but it is possible with enough motivation to change one’s life. Among other things, a person recovering from addiction should aim for developmental maturity to curb their impulses. This is a link explored by A. Tom Horvath, Kaushik Misra, Amy K. Epner, and Galen Morgan Cooper in their scholarly work, The Psychology of Addiction and Recovery.
Horvath, Misra, Epner, and Cooper cite this developmental maturity as what makes adults different from children. Unlike children, who are driven by their compulsions, adults are better equipped to align their actions with their values and beliefs. That means that adults who take on the tools to battle their addiction—such as problem solving, coping, and stress reduction skills—can eventually seek to reconcile how they are acting with the laws, institutions, and relationships that they value.
This is a fate that you and your loved ones can believe in: that you will eventually break the physical and psychological chains of addiction and be the strong, healthy, and functional adults that you always wanted to be.
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