Causes of addiction

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Addiction is a major problem faced by many people in today's society. Unfortunately, it is also widely stigmatised, with much of the population failing to understand the science behind it, and the causes that drive it.

People can become addicted to almost anything, although the most well-known and visible addictions revolve around drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, as these are usually the most destructive addictions. Because addiction can be such a destructive force, those who suffer from it are frequently blamed and labelled as bad people. Many feel that viewing addiction as a disease is far too soft an approach to tackle the problem, but the reality is that science says otherwise. In terms of how much we can understand about a certain subject, modern medicine has a very good understanding of what causes addiction, and how to treat it. The only major obstacles we really face are educating the population, and access to services.

So What Causes Addiction?

When it comes to identifying the causes of addiction, it is important to draw a distinction between what initially causes a person to go down that path and what actually causes them to become an addict. There are many factors that can lead a person to trying drugs for example, such as socio-economic status, government policies, upbringing, mental health issues, life crises, and so on. But if we look purely at what causes a person to become addicted, we can quite reasonably identify two ways: chemical and psychological.

In simple terms, addiction as a result of chemical processes occurs when something like substance abuse causes our bodies to function in a different way than before. Chemically speaking, the way in which many drugs work is by encouraging the body to release dopamine, which is quite literally the hormone that makes us happy. This is why getting high makes people feel good. Unfortunately, the use of drugs hinders our bodies’ ability to produce and receive dopamine by itself. To draw a comparison, if you don't use a muscle, it will become weak. By using drugs, we are limiting our ability to function unaided, meaning that less dopamine is released during times when a person is sober. Furthermore, many drugs damage our bodies and make them less receptive to this dopamine, meaning that we are physically and chemically less capable of being happy.

Not only do our bodies release and receive less dopamine, but the now reduced amount pales in comparison to the amount released when on drugs, which leads us to the psychological causes. According to the pleasure principal, our brain measures all pleasure with the same yardstick, that being dopamine. Just as we try to reward good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour, our brains can often measure how good or bad an action is based solely on how happy that act makes us feel. So when it comes to choosing between an action that will make us feel ecstatic instantly, and one that will take several hours and not make us feel as happy by comparison, our brains will tell us to choose the faster, more rewarding activity, despite the long-term consequences. This is known as instant gratification, and affects the way our minds work with regards to almost all other aspects of our lives. It leads us to become impatient and choose the easiest and quickest way to get what we want, instead of working hard over a long period of time to create more long-term happiness.

Unfortunately, because kicking an addiction is something that requires patience and the ability to sacrifice a certain degree of happiness in the present in favour of more long-term happiness, the whole situation becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. The brain has been reprogrammed and retrained, unfortunately in a way that makes it much harder for a person to go back to their original frame of mind. This is why therapy is so crucial in kicking an addiction. It is the best way to reprogramme the brain again, and to help people realise just how much more rewarding long-term investments in happiness are compared to instant gratification. But this reprogramming takes time, just as it took time for the addiction to take hold in the first place. 

David Clarke