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An Overview of Addiction From A to Z

By Genevieve Cunningham

An Overview of Addiction From A to Z

Addiction is a sobering topic in today’s world. It’s all too easy to throw a blanket of negativity around addiction and call it a day. “Those people suffer from addiction, but not me.”

Unfortunately, most people have had some sort of experience with addiction, whether direct or indirect. Maybe a loved one suffered from alcohol dependence. Maybe your best friend smokes cigarettes or uses another form of tobacco. Maybe you, yourself, have suffered from an addictive substance or behavior. Anyone addicted to soda pop?

Addiction is more prevalent than ever before and probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s too much a part of our society and culture. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. Addiction can be beat. The first step to managing addiction is to understand it. Why does addiction exist? Why is it a problem? And most importantly, what can we do to eliminate it from our lives as much as possible? In the world of addiction, knowledge is power.

What is Addiction?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction like this: “Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experience.” What a mouthful! Harvard Health breaks it down just a little easier by stating that addiction is a chronic and often relapsing disorder. In the simplest of terms, addiction is simply when we can’t stop doing or using something.

The good news about addiction is that it’s treatable. The bad news is that, even with treatment, quitting is really hard. And beyond the struggles of quitting. addiction almost always comes with a stigma. Once we’re in the throes of addiction, escaping can become the biggest and most important challenge of our lives.

What Causes Addiction?

Addiction isn’t an issue that comes with simple answers. For those who aren’t suffering from addiction, the remedy seems so simple: Just quit. But sufferers know all too well that “just quitting” will never be an option. Why? Because of the manner in which addictions occur.

Addictions occur because of a chain reaction in the brain. When we partake in the addiction, whatever it may be, the brain is rewarded with a surge of dopamine. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical of the brain. The more dopamine we have, the better we feel.

For most people, dopamine production in the brain is under tight control, but not so much for those who suffer from addiction. Addictive behavior occurs because the reward system of the brain is changed by the addictive substance. It gets a flood of dopamine, and so it seeks the substance or behavior over and over again. Our more natural dopamine producers -- things like exercise, love, and companionship -- just don’t seem to do the trick anymore. Over time, this creates a physical and mental dependency that can’t be shaken without professional help.

What Kinds of Addictions Are There?

For the most part, addiction can be broken into two different categories. There are behavioral addictions and substance use disorders. Some of the most common behavioral addictions include:

  • Gambling - This often leads to financial instability.
  • Kleptomania - This can lead to legal problems.
  • Internet addiction - This leads to a severely unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Pornography - This can lead to serious problems with relationships.
  • Exercise - Even good habits, when used in excess, can be damaging to our health.
  • Hoarding - When we can’t let go of items in our lives, we smother ourselves, both literally and figuratively.
  • Shopping - This often causes us to have too much stuff and not enough money.
  • Adrenaline - Risky behavior can be damaging to our physical health. Risk assessment is more important than the adrenaline high.
  • Binge eating - Food addictions are real, and binge eating can lead to problems for our physical well-being.

These addictions are harmful because they sneak up on us. We may not even realize we have an addiction, especially since most people associate addiction with substance. But behavioral addictions can really impact our lives. Of course, substance addictions are just as harmful, perhaps even more so, and they can range from mild substances to life-threatening addictions. Some of the most common substance abuse addictions include the following.

  • Caffeine - This is the most common legal addiction to affect the masses.
  • Tobacco - Cigarette use has dropped as a whole, but the struggle with tobacco still persists for many adults.
  • Alcohol - Another legal addiction that can cause life-long damage to many people’s lives.
  • Prescription and non-prescription opioids - Perhaps the biggest addiction crisis of our lifetime, opioids are a growing problem.
  • Prescription and non-prescription stimulants - From methamphetamine to prescription Adderall, stimulants can be especially dangerous for the heart.
  • Hypnotics and sedatives - Sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, and anti-anxiety medication all fall into this category.

Substance abuse addictions are especially hard to stop. Many times, the person suffering from the addiction will need assistance quitting the addiction safely. To protect their mental health and physical well-being, it’s important to seek out professional help with experience in treating addiction.

Why Do People Become Addicted?

Research into addiction has been going on for years, and yet we still don’t have solid answers as to why some people suffer from addiction and others don’t. However, there are some good observations and research-based theories as to why people become addicted in the first place.

  • Family history - There is evidence to suggest that addiction runs in families. This may have something to do with both genetics as well as the similarities in the environment in which family members develop and grow.
  • Underdeveloped brains - There’s a reason why teenagers are at an increased risk of addiction. It’s because their brains, more specifically the prefrontal cortex, has not fully developed, so it is especially vulnerable to addictive substances and behavior.
  • Personal mental health - Addiction has been linked to those already suffering from mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more. It has also been linked to trauma. Those who suffered from significant trauma, especially at a young age, are more likely to suffer from addiction as an adult.

There isn’t any one glaring reason why people become addicted. They become addicted because their brain responds to the substance or behavior for one reason or another. If you have a loved one struggling with substance abuse or behavioral addiction, understanding their personal reasons may help lead them to the most effective treatment plan.

Famous People Who Suffered From Addictions

Addiction isn’t picky. It can affect people of all kinds. It doesn’t discriminate against socio-economic status, race, gender, or background. It can affect literally anyone. Sometimes, it’s helpful to hear of other people -- people we would deem as successful -- who suffered and overcame addiction.

  • Robert Downey Jr - Iron Man is human after all. Robert Downey Jr. suffered from addiction in his teenage years into adulthood, but luckily found addiction treatment that worked. He’s open about his struggles, and is a great example of going from the throes of addiction to success.
  • Ben Affleck - This major movie star has a history of struggling with alcohol. He reportedly has been in and out of rehab centers but continues to fight the long-term fight of dependence and addiction. His story is a positive one of perseverance, as addiction is something that needs life-long attention.
  • Eric Clapton - He struggled with addiction to alcohol and multiple drugs for years. After suffering a personal crisis with the death of his son, Clapton got sober and even founded a medical rehab facility in Antigua.
  • Drew Barrymore - Being a child star isn’t easy. Barrymore began abusing drugs and alcohol as a child, but still managed to get treatment and recover. She’s now considered one of the most beloved actresses of our time.

The important part to remember about addiction is that you’re not alone. No matter your station in life, your career, or your situation, there are millions of others suffering from addiction as well. Help is out there.

Who Can I Call for Help?

Whether it’s you or someone you love with an addiction problem, there is more help out there than ever before. Treatment programs can be found in just about every major city. Addiction hotlines are available 24/7 for people who need support right now. A good start when looking for help is calling the national helpline for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration at (800) 662-4357.

Even after you complete a treatment program, you may need some help; support groups are available to keep you on the addiction-free path. You don’t have to suffer in silence, and you certainly don’t have to suffer alone. Reach out for help and know that life without addiction is possible on the other side.

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