Since it is normal and necessary to habituate (make into habits) certain actions, we must realize that repetitive behaviors range on a grey-scale continuum from good healthy habits to server, life-threatening compulsions. So in some way, addiction touches all of us.
When the habit leads to positive automatic behavior, such as brushing your teeth twice a day, then there is no problem…and it’s even encouraged. But when the repetitive behavior continues and escalates despite negative consequences, such as binge drinking every night, then there is a definite problem that needs to be addressed and modified – addiction.
Addictions evolve over time for a variety of reasons. They intertwine themselves almost seductively into an individual’s lifestyle in a very complex way. The manifestations of addiction can most easily be understood as forms of slow incremental adaptations on three separate dimensions:
• Biological: Changes in the brain occur neurologically, such that positive thoughts and feelings can only be attained through using the drug or continuing the behavior, and eventually that state of being ‘under the influence’ feels ‘normal’.
• Psychological: Typical emotional/psychological development becomes ‘retarded’ while healthy coping skills atrophy, causing a greater need to continue relying on the drug or behavior to feel ‘normal’.
• Social: Health-promoting social networks, clubs or family life either disappear literally or are replaced with social connections of like-minded groups, where continued use of the drug or behavior is seen as ‘normal’, and helps avoid feelings of isolation and boredom.
Ultimately, what historically were activities to make yourself feel better – like singing in the church choir or playing a competitive game of tennis – have been totally replaced by this singular preoccupation or behavior that now has become the only way for you to feel good. Instead of ‘getting an emotional reward’ from the typical positive facets of life (supportive family, delicious food, or great sex), you find that only using that particular drug or doing that activity will make you feel good – and much quicker and always predictable.
Simply stated – Your brain has been ‘hi-jacked’ – the ‘wiring in your head’ has been chemically changed due to the repeated administration of the drug or behavior. Imagine a faulty traffic light signal at a busy intersection, where the electrical wiring has been tampered with, causing the red and green to not work properly. The result will be terrible car accidents and complete chaos for the flow of traffic in all directions.
Most importantly, addiction refers to ‘the loss of control over behavior’. The rational, emotional judgement that typically helps to evaluate your options before you decide to act on a specific situation is now altered – “Bio-Psycho-Socially Compromised” – and your behavior appears to be ‘out-of-control’ – despite your best intentions. “You can’t stop it and can’t start any new healthy behaviors!” Yet you don’t realize that you have actually trained yourself to behave exactly in this manner.
But let’s remember that addiction or being addicted is not “an end point”, nor is it “an either/or condition” – but rather must be seen as “a matter of degrees”. For example, most addicts are a long way from hitting bottom, and hold down very stressful and prestigious jobs. Most addicts look and act ‘normal’ most of the time, regardless of their drug of choice.
The “positive coping adaptation” to your life’s earlier problems has now gone totally awry – and it has become an addiction.