A Beginner’s Guide To Addiction

What is addiction?

Addiction is defined as a chronic and relapsing disorder characterised by compulsive engagement in rewarding action despite adverse and harmful consequences and long-lasting changes in the brain. It is classed as a medical illness caused by repeated behaviour expecting of a different outcome. 

How do I know if I am an addict?

There is a moment when an individual recognises or acknowledges that there is a problem with their actions and behaviour.  This may be from their own recognition of things not being right or by a family member or friend telling them that they are changing, and their behaviour has become a source of concern.  It is at that very point that we start to make excuses for our behaviour or find a traumatic life experience as being the reason as to why we have changed.  The denial that there is a problem stems from that point.

Who can get addicted?

The addictive process does not happen overnight and the point that the addictive behaviour and thinking starts to become destructive is different for everyone and can affect all ages.  There are no barriers to addiction for age, sex, religion, good or bad childhoods, or type of employment, for example. At The Haynes Clinic we have seen a vast variety of addicts from all walks of life. 

multiple addictions

How does addiction affect the brain?

Addiction is now seen as a brain disease. By using drugs and by behaving in certain ways, the biochemistry and anatomy of neurons change and the way the brain works also changes. Basically, there is an initial “reward,” whereby the act of taking alcohol or drugs has a profound effect on how we feel.  Initially, that effect will be positive and it is only over a period of time that that positive will turn into a destructive negative. Chemicals called neurotransmitters pass messages from one neuron to another.  Dopamine is about the most common of these neurotransmitters. Dopamine is known as the main neurotransmitter in the “reward pathway”. Addictive drugs and alcohol all share one characteristic and that is that they will initially increase the level of Dopamine in our system above normal levels.  This applies to the full range of addictive drugs including heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and party drugs like Ecstasy.

This “reward pathway,’ also features in addictions and addictive thinking and behaviour that does not necessarily involve drugs such as the compulsive eating and purging behaviour in anorexia and bulimia, over exercise, sex and love addiction and problem gambling.

Over a period of time, we start to develop a tolerance to our drug of choice. It is noticeable that suddenly we are needing larger amounts or drinking more to get the effect that we used to get.  It seems that any level of pleasure that we used to get has been reduced; in time it will go completely. As we have started to increase our addictive behaviour, so the levels of Dopamine that our brain is producing have also increased.  This leads to an over stimulation of the reward system making it harder for the higher levels to be dealt with.  The brain tries to solve this problem by simply decreasing dopamine production or reducing the dopamine receptors.  It is at this stage that we are drinking alcohol or using drugs to stop our body having withdrawal symptoms or going into drug and alcohol withdrawal.

Why addicts get depressed

It is also around this time that we start to feel very low in mood, as our body craves the drug we have been taking, but our reward for taking it has now gone.  Whatever problems that we may have had in the past or currently, addiction has now become our number one problem. This is not just the case with alcohol or drugs: other forms of addictive behaviour e.g.  heavy gambling, will also have reduced us to a poor mental state. The pressure of our actions may have dangerously depleted our finances and devastated  our family life.  However, no matter what form our addiction takes, we will continue on this path of self-destruction until we seek help. 

How the covid pandemic affected addiction

Certainly, with the Covid pandemic and the lockdowns that were imposed on our lives and family lives,  these were tremendous triggers and for many people with an addictive nature, it caused them to speed up their addiction and made them need to get help sooner.  As widely reported these extraordinary circumstances detrimentally affected the mental health of many people, and this also included an increase in addictive behaviour.

In fact, the highlighting of mental health issues and how people have subsequently openly declared the problems that they have with alcohol, drugs, gambling addiction and eating disorders, has made it easier to find ways to seek help. To remain in the same environment and try to make changes will, in the most part, never work. We find it difficult to accept that we can’t make life changes on our own   and reverse our addiction and we become even more mentally depressed when we find that we can’t succeed on our own and need the help of others.

How residential rehab can help addicts

In order to make the changes that we need to make with our addictive thinking and behaviour then the option of going into a residential rehab or addiction clinic is a very valid one.  Certainly, for an alcohol detox or Heroin detox there needs to be detox medication taken for around one to two weeks.  For those addictions that do not need medication to come off them safely then there is still the need to be in a safe environment and to have intensive therapy and attendance at the relevant addiction support groups for up to 28 days, as well as the continuing Aftercare that rehab clinics such as The Haynes Clinic provides.  Anyone that needs a medicated detox  should be starting group therapy within 24 hours of being seen by the clinic’s doctor.

The amazing thing about any addiction is that there is a positive side.  It is more than possible to get well and lead a life that is not governed by our active addictive behaviour. Having an addiction is like having a ball and chain around our leg and that ball will drag us to places that we ultimately do not want to go to.  Going in to addiction treatment is like having the chain removed and we are free to get and live a life.