When does an addictive behaviour become destructive? What makes some individuals more susceptible to developing an addiction than others? EMCC Executive Director and Senior Principal Psychotherapist, Joachim Lee, relates Linda’s story to provide some answers.
Understanding Addiction from a human experience
Many years ago, I worked in Australia at a shelter for women who were homeless, alcoholic and/or had been abused. I was assigned to an 83-year-old sweet and gentle lady who walked with the aid of a walking stick. Let’s call her Linda. Every week, at 9 am on Monday, I would escort her to the bank to withdraw her allowance. And every week, after lunch on Monday, she would disappear from the shelter and only return the following morning, completely drunk. After a few weeks, I garnered the courage to ask her about her behaviour. Her reply was heart-breaking and helped me to understand addiction from a human experience.
Types and symptoms of addiction
There are two broad categories of addiction: Substance Addiction and Behavioural Addiction. The more common substance addictions are to alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, opioids, sedatives and solvents (inhalants). Common behavioural addictions are addictions to pornography, sex, online gaming, gambling, overeating, shopping, and social media. How can you tell if someone is addicted to something? Well, if the person tries to abstain or decrease the behaviour or use of the substance, and this leads to physical discomfort, then most likely there is an addiction. Examples of these so-called withdrawal symptoms are nausea, muscle aches, headaches, mood swings, fatigue, changes in appetite, constant hunger or thirst.
What causes addiction?
There are two popular ways of thinking about the cause of addiction and how to treat it. One is based on the belief that addiction is a personal choice and that, with sufficient will power, you can stop the addiction: “Just stop it; if you will it, you can stop it.” The other is based on the belief that addiction by caused by one’s genetic makeup. The treatment therefore would be to prescribe a drug to manage the addiction, as the individual himself/herself has no choice or control over the addiction. As appealing as the two explanations are, they are both incomplete. From the field of neuroscience, we have learnt that humans have “survival circuits” in the brain which we engage whenever we perceive a threat to our survival or opportunity to us to thrive.
Understanding this may help us to understand how an addictive behaviour develops and how to help individuals to recover from an addiction. We start with a fundamental presupposition: that every addictive behaviour has a positive intention. The addictive act stems from a “survival” instinct. It is an attempt to manage a pain and/or a way to ensure continual existence. Understanding this is important and is the starting point before rushing into any therapy.
Returning to Linda’s story: When I asked her about her weekly binge drinking, her heart-breaking reply was “…because I am lonely.” She proceeded to tell me about how her husband and children were blown to pieces during World War 2 leading her to leave her home country in search of a new beginning. Linda’s schocking answer left a lasting impression on me. It was the catalyst for my decision to specialise in addiction work.
What was she trying to achieve by getting drunk in the pub every week? I learnt that her actions were driven by her need to ease and numb her pain and loneliness. That was the “positive intention” behind her addictive behaviour.
In medicine, addiction is defined as a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences. People with addictions have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s) or repeating certain behaviour(s), to the point that it takes over their life. They continue even when they know it will cause problems in their lives. In other words, addiction could also be described as “a behaviour that gives temporary relief and pleasure that also has negative consequences if the behaviour is acted on again and again until the individual is unable to give it up”.
How to recover from an addiction
To understand an addiction requires taking time to understand the source of the stress or pain, to look for what is beneath it and discover the benefit that the individual derives from the addictive substance or behaviour. You may need to work with a professional counsellor to get to the source. However, even before you see a counsellor, here are 3 steps you can personally take to jump-start your own recovery.
1. Use self-soothing techniques and actions whenever you find the stress/pain emerging. Some examples:
~ perform intentional deep and slow breathing which calms the mind
~ take walks in nature. Paying attention to details in your surroundings helps refocus the mind
2. Stimulate your mind through Visualization.
~ create fun in your brain
~ imagine and visualise by thinking of new alternative things that you can do to stay in control and free from the addictive behaviour
~ give yourself permission to think both big and small things
3. Imagine your new behaviour.
~ Now put everything together by breathing deeply, and when the mind and body is calm, start to see yourself doing a new behaviour that is free from the addictive behaviour whenever the urge or need begins to emerge
These are 3 proactive steps you can personally take to mitigate the addictive behaviour. However, a complete recovery requires one to address the stress/pain and concurrently calm the survival circuits of the brain. If you have an addiction and would like to consult on ways to live a healthier life, EMCC is here to assist you.
Make an enquiry or book an appointment here.