What is Addiction?

If you or a loved one is suffering from an addiction, you are not alone. Addiction is extremely prevalent in our society, with 35 million people enduring substance use disorders, and only one in seven people seeking treatment every year. You may ask why more people don’t seek help. There are many misnomers and stigmas circulating among society about addictions that prevent numerous people from seeking treatment, but the purpose of this article is to provide you with information and resources to support yourself or a loved one who is affected by addiction. Let’s begin with a definition. Addiction is an irresistible involvement in a substance such as alcohol, drugs, food, or a behaviour such as gambling, exercise, sex, shopping, video games, or internet, to name a few. In order to qualify as an addiction, the individual’s involvement must be harmful to the individual themself, and/or to their family, and society. Much research has gone into understanding the psychology behind addiction and it is now widely acknowledged that addiction occurs along a spectrum. Among the many theories of addiction, substance use or habitual behaviour as a means of coping is the one that we will focus on here.

Research has shown that stress and addictive behaviours are closely connected with immediate reinforcement through the reward system in the brain and less effective coping strategies for stress. Studies show that maladaptive coping styles used to manage depression, social anxiety, low self-esteem, self-efficacy, vulnerability to stress, as well as loneliness and perceived social support is often associated with internet addiction in particular. In these cases, the individual plays games or surfs the internet as a means to avoid feelings of loneliness or uses virtual gaming to displace the need for social connection. Similarly, alcohol or drug addiction can develop from using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism to deal with effects of past trauma, daily stressors, social isolation, loneliness, loss of loved ones, loss of job, depression, or anxiety which many of us have likely experienced to some extent throughout our lives.

You may have heard addiction referred to as a cycle. There are actually 3 phases in the addiction cycle, which you may be able to recognize in yourself or in a loved one: binge and intoxication phase as a means to cope with a stressor, followed by withdrawal and negative mood, which then results in preoccupation and anticipation to use again. Since it is a cycle, any stage can be accessed first. Due to physiological changes in the brain that keep an individual caught up in this cycle, it is difficult to break. With proper supports and coping tools, however, recovery is possible.

What Are the Symptoms?

Addiction taps into the reward and stress centres of the brain and actually changes the structures and functioning of the brain. Some common symptoms of addiction include:

  • Impulsivity
  • Lack of self-control
  • Difficulty making plans
  • Inflexible thinking
  • Troubles following instructions
  • Difficulty focusing on tasks
  • Challenges regulating emotions
  • Memory problems
  • Negative moods and using the addictive behaviour or substance to self-regulate
  • Difficulties in work, school, or relationships

Substance Addiction

You may recognize if you or someone you love is dealing with a substance use disorder if you notice a substance such as alcohol or drugs is taken in larger amounts or for a longer time than intended. There are often cravings associated with the substance or a great deal of time is spent thinking about using the substance, using the substance, and recovering from it. Risky behaviours may be engaged in while using the substance such as driving under the influence, risky sexual behaviours, and other hobbies once enjoyed are given up. Tolerance to a substance will increase with more use, and withdrawal can have severe psychological and physiological effects such as anxiety, insomnia, nausea, tremors, hallucinations, rapid pulse, sweating, and in severe cases, seizures.

Internet Addiction

If you notice yourself or someone you love using internet games as a means to contribute to a positive mood or reduce a negative mood, then these are signs of an increased likelihood to developing an internet gaming addiction. Spending lots of time thinking about playing an online game and dedicating the majority of time to gaming, and emotional withdrawal shown by irritability, anxiety, and sadness are common in internet gaming addiction. Like substance use disorders, a loss of interest in other hobbies can occur and gaming is used to escape uncomfortable feelings. In severe cases of internet gaming disorder, it can contribute to relationship or job loss because of the excess amount of time spent playing.

How Does Addiction Impact Relationships?

It may be very stressful or concerning if you or a loved one is experiencing an addiction. The cycle of addiction can occupy a great deal of a person’s time, therefore social, work, and family activities can be neglected to varying degrees. Due to the large amount of time spent towards internet gaming addiction, relationships often erode, causing loneliness. There is also a connection between addiction, aggressive behaviours, and risky sexual relations. Understandably, this triad of behaviours can damage relationships. Children of parents with substance use disorders are at higher risk for challenges with social, emotional and developmental domains, as well as increased risk for the child to develop a substance use disorder. Despite the difficulties addiction can cause in relationships, fortunately, there is hope.

As a Loved One of a Person with an Addiction, What Can I Do?

You may want to help but you’re not sure how. First of all, it is important to be understanding and compassionate towards the individual with the addiction because they are struggling to cope with stressful events in their life. Understand that there is no one to blame when it comes to addiction. Seek out education on addictions such as attending psychoeducation workshops, reach out for support to other loved ones, and seek therapy for yourself and family. Since the functioning of a family system can affect relapse, it is important to create and nurture a healthy family system. When a parent has a substance use disorder, family therapy can help to create more positive parent-child interactions and can help establish supportive peer relationships for the child where they can feel safe and validated, while support groups for the parent can foster meaningful connection where they can feel understood. Couples therapy, such as emotion focused therapy (EFT) has also been shown to help improve romantic partner satisfaction when a spouse is dealing with a substance use disorder. It can help increase motivation to change, and it can help you as a distressed spouse cope.

As an Individual Experiencing Addiction, What Can I Do?

Sometimes the support of your family and friends is simply not enough to help you overcome your addiction. There are many addiction treatment centres in the Edmonton area that can help, as well as group therapy. Group therapy has been proven to be an effective method of recovery from addiction. It provides strong social connection with others who are going through similar challenges, which can help you overcome interpersonal challenges, depression, and can provide you with valuable coping skills.

Research has shown that having a greater number of coping tools in one’s toolbox to draw from is linked to better outcomes of readiness to change, stopping substance use or the addictive behaviour, and reducing dependency on the substance or behaviour. Having a diverse set of coping skills to handle life’s stressors is important for overcoming addiction to be equipped to deal with cravings, triggers, and impulses in the future.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be helpful to learn coping tools, while acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be helpful to change behaviours and improve cognitive flexibility. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another therapy that can complement your treatment if you have suffered a trauma or have another psychiatric condition that you are struggling to cope with.

For a more balanced mood and to help you stick with treatment for your substance addiction, medication may be prescribed for you.

Talk to a therapist at Rediscover about a personalized treatment plan that’s right for you.