The Psychology Behind Addictions

An addiction, in its most basic sense, is a behavior that does not change regardless of the harmful or even life threatening consequences. People that are addicted to something, regardless of what that thing is, suffer because of the addiction but they cannot seem to help themselves to stop. In many cases the person with the addiction knows it is negative, illegal or wrong and hides the behavior to avoid being caught by others. Understanding why some people become addicted to particular things and other people don’t is a fascinating part of research that continues to evolve as psychologists and scientists learn more about the functioning of the human brain.

Types of Addictions

Addictions are certainly not new as problematic issues for the human race. The first manufacturing of alcohol, which dates back to before 8000 BC, was just the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg grows with cocaine, opium, cannabis and even different types of mushrooms and plant seeds, roots and leaves all used to allow people to experience sensations of pleasure. Ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans, Mongolians and Egyptians all experienced significant addictions within their populations.

Today the term addiction refers to more than just a dependence on a specific substance. Researchers now recognize the following addictions in addition to substance addictions:

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Internet use
  • Exercise
  • Body modification
  • Food
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Cutting
  • Religion
  • Compulsions

If you consider this list many of these addictions are something that we all do every day without any consequences. Why some people become addicted to these daily behaviors starts with looking closely at the psychology of an addiction.

Habits To Addictions

Any type of habit can eventually become an addiction if the brain becomes wired to repeat the habit to cope with daily life. Often people don’t realize when a habit, which you can stop with effort and concentration, turns into an addiction, which requires much more intensive cognitive and behavioral therapies to change.  Typically positive reinforcement, either internal or external, needs to accompany the habit for it to become an addiction. People don’t become addicted on the first use of most soft drugs, alcohol, tobacco products or the first time they have sex, go to the store or attend a religious service.  On the other hand some drugs, particularly methamphetamines and heroin are highly addictive even with just one use.

Individuals with a history of addictive behavior in the family, including drugs and alcohol, are at higher risk than the rest of the population for developing some type of addiction. Children exposed to abuse or that are raised by addicted parents or parents with mental health disorders are also at risk, as are individuals diagnosed anytime in life with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or post traumatic stress disorder.

Two Types of Addictions

It is important to understand that when an addiction occurs there are actually two different components to consider. The first is the physical addiction and the second is the psychological or brain-based addiction. The physical addiction includes changes in the chemistry in the brain or body that produce pleasant experiences. This is what is seen in alcohol, drug, tobacco and some types of food addictions.

The second type of addiction is when the brain actually shuts off other forms of pleasure, seeking only one specific way to obtain it, which is through the addictive behavior. It is like the brain has only one pathway to deal with the stress around the person and that is to seek more and more pleasure through repeating the same negative behavior. People are typically aware that what they are doing is damaging themselves, their loved ones and friends yet they are powerless to change the brain’s addictive behavior. This is true for problem gambling, shopping, pornography and workaholism. While they initial feel satisfaction and pleasure, they also feel guilt, shame and embarrassment about not being able to stop, driving the brain to repeat the behavior to relieve the negativity and emotional pain.

It is therefore essential that both aspects of the addiction, the physical and the psychological, are treated together. This may include behavioral therapy, medications to relieve stress and anxiety or a combination of long and short term treatments.

What are your thoughts on psychological addictions and the treatment options available? Are they a true addiction or a habit that is not controlled?

Kitty Vogen is a professional writer who attended an industrial organizational psychology program in school where she studied addictive behavior in addition to other psychology topics.