This Is the first of three articles in the Topic on addiction. Addiction is a strong and uncontrollable urge to take substances like drugs or alcohol or carry out activities like gambling or sex. The urge to use or carry out an activity often takes precedent over other areas of the person’s life despite causing harm physically, emotionally or socially. Common addiction is to alcohol or drugs, but can be anything from gambling to “less harmful” products such as fizzy drinks or addiction to the likes of work or the internet. Thus addiction can be substance dependence (e.g. alcohol or drug addiction) or behavioural addiction (e.g. gambling, sex, work, and video game addiction).
Addictions develop due to a complex web of factors including genetic, social, personality, brain response to pleasure, past experience and many other factors. Addiction causes feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, despair, failure, rejection, anxiety and humiliation.
What causes Addiction?
Causes of addiction are varied and complex and due to a combination of mental, physical, circumstantial (eg. being introduced to a drug when young and prone to peer pressure) and emotional factors. Repeated use of an addictive substance is thought to change the way the brain experiences pleasure. The substance or activity (drug, alcohol, gambling etc) leads to changes in certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain leading to feelings of euphoria, known as a “buzz” or a “high” which can lead to the urge for further and more frequent use
With time, regular and frequent use or participation leads to the person not experiencing the same pleasure they initially would have experienced and the person needs to keep increasing the dose as the body will develop tolerance to the effects of the addictive substance. To give an example of something as (deceptively) simple as coffee; those that consume large quantities of coffee have an increased tolerance to the effects of caffeine, whilst someone who rarely drinks it would get a huge kick from an espresso. Eventually, the addict will not experience “highs” from using and simply takes the substance to feel “normal” by preventing withdrawal symptoms. It is the tolerance to the substance or activity that increases the risk of addiction. Tolerance means the addicted person requires increasing amounts of addicted to in order to gain the same effect or to prevent unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
Difference between habits and addictions
A habit is something has a choice over meaning a person can when choose to stop and can successfully stop if they want to (eg) having a few sociable drinks at the weekend. With an addiction there is a psychological/physical compulsion to continue using/doing the substance/activity; the person is no longer able to control the addiction without help because of the mental or physical components.
What are the risk factors for Addiction?
Anybody, no matter what age, sex or social status can potentially become an addict; there are certain factors which may increase the risk:
- Genetics(family history) – those with a close relative with an addiction problem has a higher risk of eventually developing one themselves. For example, alcoholics are six times more likely than non-alcoholics to have blood relatives who are alcohol dependent. Some of this is down to “normalization” of a certain activity (eg) copying what your parents do such as drinking heavily
- Family life– Young people who do not have a strong attachment to their parents and siblings have a higher risk of developing addiction problems compared to people with deep family attachments. (ie) do not have the guidance they need to follow the right path and more susceptible to the “desire” to belong to a group so can get more easily drawn into gangs or “wrong crowd”.
- Gender– Men suffer from addictions more than women. Statistics indicate males are twice as likely as females to experience drug addiction problems.
- Link with mental health problems– those with mental health problems like depression, bi-polar disorder, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and other mental disorders suffer from higher rate of addiction to the likes of drugs, alcohol or nicotine. In some cases the mental health disorder leads to addiction but in others it is the addiction that causes the mental health problem (alcohol or drugs)
- Peer pressure– Sometimes considered the biggest cause of addiction especially in younger people, especially addictions (and many addictions start young). The use of harmful substances is a way of conforming and gaining acceptance with peers.
- Loneliness- can lead to increased use of the likes of alcohol and nicotine as a means of coping leading to addiction.
- The nature of the substance- some substances, such as heroin or cocaine can bring about addiction more rapidly than others.
- Age when substance was first consumed- studies of alcoholism have shown that people who start consuming drugs, alcohol and nicotine earlier in life have a higher risk of eventually becoming addicted, than those who started later.
- Stress– evidence indicate certain stress hormones are among the causes of alcoholism. High stress levels make a person more prone to use the likes of alcohol to attempt blank out problems and relieve stress.
- How the body metabolises (processes) the substance- with alcohol, those who require a higher dose to achieve an effect have higher rates addiction. Some populations have a lower tolerance to alcohol (due to lower levels of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol) and this is blamed for higher alcohol addiction rates in these populations (eg) native Indian population in America and Aborigines in Australia.
Community Alcohol and Drug Service (CADS)
The HSE Community Alcohol and Drug Service offer counselling and treatment services for adults suffering from addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling. CADS have centres in Mullingar, Athlone and Longford. CADS provides counselling and treatment to help people get over their addiction. You can contact them at 04493 41630.
To be continued….next week
For comprehensive and free health advice and information call in to Whelehans, log on to www.whelehans.ie or dial 04493 34591.