What does “Addiction” Really Mean?

The word “addiction” is defined in the dictionary (yes, good ole Webster) as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice, or to something that is psychologically or physically habit forming to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”

If you ask the “experts” what addiction means, you’ll probably get a completely different answer than you will from an actual addict. Although from a real, down-home addict’s point of view, that Webster definition is pretty on-point. While everyone is different, of course, the common thread among most addicts is that it’s a complete drag to try and stop on our own. Yes, it feels like slavery. Addiction literally changes the brain by destroying the way that it registers pleasure, and in the process, other drives like learning and motivation are corrupted. And one of the most frustrating things about addiction is that we don’t choose it. It chooses us. Oh, the doom!

Once-upon-a-time, researchers believed that addiction was something that only afflicted folks who were morally flawedsigh. In fact, investigation into the root cause of addiction began less than one hundred years ago (in the 1930’s), so this belief that addicts were somehow inherently bad is not very old. We’ve come a long way since the 1930’s, but understanding the mind of an addict is still relatively difficult. Recovery from addiction does involve a certain amount of willpower, but as any legitimate addict will tell you, willpower alone will not cut it. Again, addicts are not derelicts. The brain of an addict is incredibly complex. The brain is complex, period, so to try and brush off addiction as something that only occurs in morally flawed humans is a very naïve and under-researched conclusion to draw.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

When we engage in drug use, alcohol consumption, or any other activity that’s addictive for us, what we’re basically doing is flooding the brain with an excessive amount of dopamine. We’ve talked about dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter–one that plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. In layman’s terms, dopamine is a “happy chemical” in the brain. Pleasurable activities like eating, being creative, listening to music, among other things, all activate the brain’s reward center, releasing this happy chemical naturally. But what happens when we begin to flood the reward center with things like drugs and alcohol, or other addictive behaviors that we engage in beyond what’s healthy?

Addictive drugs pose one of the biggest threats to the brain, because they can release anywhere from two to ten times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards such as eating and sex do. That said, behaviors such as compulsive eating (particularly sugar consumption), compulsive sex, and compulsive gambling, to name a few, can have a similar effect on dopamine levels. Engaging in any of these behaviors “addictively” can result in your brain producing less dopamine on its own, or eliminating dopamine receptors altogether. And so begins the vicious cycle of addiction in order to continuously feed these pleasure centers and keep dopamine levels high.

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

So how can we break the cycle? How can we stop being an addict? Most sober addicts who stay clean with the help of the twelve steps, for example, will tell you that addiction is an incurable disease. And it kind of is incurable, although since we’re not doctors or scientists, we can’t really make that claim. But when addiction seizes the brain, it can be near impossible to kick without help.

A good rehabilitation program can make a big difference, and to stay clean over the long term, twelve step programs can work miracles. These programs can lay a great foundation for your recovery. Incorporating lots of natural dopamine boosting activities into your daily routine can help kick the brain back into high gear as well. Creative activities like drawing or sculpting, playing music, dance, meditation, among other things – these are all great ways to reward the brain’s pleasure center without drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy and addictive things.

One thing to remember, however, is that if you’re an addict and you’ve recently gotten sober, remaining hyper vigilant and consistent is the key to keeping your addiction (or addictions) at bay. This means sticking with a regular twelve step meeting schedule, continuing therapy or aftercare following a treatment program, a daily meditation routine, and/or all of the above. Whatever has proven to be the most beneficial in your life for you and your recovery maintenance–keep doing that!

Addicts in recovery – what programs, or combination of programs and activities, have helped you to maintain your sobriety? Let us know in the comments below. We want to hear from you!

Get in Touch with Us…

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please remember that you’re not alone. Kembali Recovery Center is here to help, and our next intake is right around the corner. Contact us today to learn about our 4-week treatment program.

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