Addiction is prevalent within our society. We only ever think of the rough-sleeping, Class A drug user begging for change, but addiction can be closer to home than you think.
You may not be aware of the ‘functioning alcoholic’ working in the cubicle next to you or the young man addicted to computer games or pornography. Society teaches us to hide or ignore our failings, putting our ‘best foot forward’ or a mask so that we function ‘normally’ – but at what consequence?
Clients come to see me at Therapy in London on a regular basis reliant on a number of different ‘crutches’ in order to cope in the world. Some of the most common addictions that I see within my private practice are: Drinking, gambling, recreational drug, pornography, computer games, shopping, internet dating, prescription drugs, smoking, sugar, work, food, sex, exercise, mobile phones, social media and many more!
For some they are knowledgeable of their addictions and feel they are getting out of hand. Others may not be conscious of their addictions but want to stop the turmoil of their detrimental behaviour.
What I thought would be helpful is to look at some common questions concerning addictions such as: Why we become addicted, how addictions can affect your life and the way psychotherapy can help you overcome addictions.
Firstly, take some time to reflect on what’s going on in your life, what effect it is having and how your addictions help you feel safe, secure or distance yourself from your problems.
What contributes to our addiction
Many of you may think, ‘how can anyone become addicted to social media, or exercise?’ Many of us do these activities on a daily basis but are not addicted. For others they may not be addicted to alcohol but instead work, or internet dating. What is it then that contributes to our addiction?
In order to answer this question it is important to look at a holistic view in order to see how our addictions become embedded into our lives
Society and our social groups
Society and the social circles we inhabit play a crucial part in our relationship to actions or substances that we could become addicted to. If we take alcohol as an example we can see that a drinking culture in our society is prevalent. The media endorses alcohol consumption (similarly in the way smoking was in the 1950’s) and drinking has become a part of the way we establish relationships, make connections and validates us in different social groups.
Once the addictive activities become normalised in our lives they start becoming a part of the way we relate to ourselves and how others relate to us. We are known as a drinker, a gamer or an eater, then we gain statue and validation from that image. Friends will endorse that image as part of your character. Many may only be friends with you because of your identity within your addiction, such as an avatar in an online game or your social media presence.
We gain pleasure then not only from the action but also from our relationships and others perception of us in relation to the addictive action or substance.
Action and effect
It is not just about the relationship to these actions or substances, but the psychological and physical effect of our actions. If we take gambling as an example, the gambler gets hooked on not the acquisition of money but more the rush of dopamine (the brain’s feel good chemical) associated with winning. Therefore it is the action and effect of the bet rather than the monetary gain of gambling.
This is why an addict can never ‘win’ enough. It is the action, effect and reward we are getting from the addiction and we get from that the addictive tendency that we are seeking. You can see then, that an addiction is a multi-layered psychological and physiological state.
Pacifying stress and anxiety
When we are looking for relief from pressure or a way to distance ourselves from difficulties which are mentally plaguing us, these do not just stem from the issues present but also the way we’re taught to deal with pressure and anxiety in our past. Addictive tendencies are the way we have been taught to distance ourselves from that pressure, then we see it as a rational way of dealing with difficulties. This is why addictive tendencies are linked to, and exacerbated by, stress and anxiety.
However due to the effect our addictions have on us, so to can they be the catalyst for stress if we find at any point we can’t act on our addictive tendencies.
Our addictions may give us short term relief but the long term consequences can actually perpetuate our suffering. This isn’t just with our initial presenting issues but through the consequences of our addictive actions and the stress from not acting on our addictive thoughts feelings and behaviours. It is a vicious circle!
With this holistic view in mind we can see why it is so hard for an addict to just stop drinking or to step away from the computer screen. It’s so much more than just the action and effect of the addiction but the also, what their addiction means to them and the identity the action or substance gives to the addict.
The consequences of our addictions
There is a wide range of literature on the subject of the impact of addictions and the majority agree that addiction does not just impact you psychologically and physically, but can overspill into your relationships with others and even your own safety and well being.
Common effects of an addiction can include: Distraction, A defensive attitude, Frequent, small accidents or mistakes, Sudden weight loss, Lack of concern over appearance, Tiredness, Withdrawal from responsibility, Changes in work attendance or performance, Mood swings with temper outbursts, Paranoia or overreaction to criticism, Secretive or dishonest behaviour.
Ultimately your preoccupation with the addictive substance or action takes precedent over your whole life. We become disinterested with anything, or anyone that gets in the way of the actions of your addiction. Hence why your addictions do not just impact on your life but also the lives of your friends and family.
How psychotherapy can help your addictions
To learn more about psychotherapy, how it can help you and the psychotherapeutic process please look at my introduction here