HOW TO RECOGNISE IF YOU ARE ADDICTED
Determining whether you have an addiction is not as straightforward as you would think. Many a time this is because the addiction is part of your usual routine and behaviour and so has become part of your ‘normal’. Also, because admitting you have an addiction is not easy and comes with a social stigma. It can be difficult to want to recognise when this might be the case in your own life. Keep in mind that many people struggle with an addiction of some sort at some stage in their lives and often flip between addictions. However, recovery is not an impossibility.
Consider the questions below. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of them then you may have an addiction, whether it be to a substance or a particular behaviour.
- Do you regularly or continually use a substance or engage in a certain behaviour as a way to cope emotionally, socially or physically?
- Do you use more of the substance or engage in the behaviour more often now than in the past?
- Do you have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have the substance or engage in the behaviour?
- Have you lied to anyone about your use of the substance or extent of your behaviour?
Recognising when you have an addiction to a substance or a certain behaviour is the first step in being able to break its power in your life.
One of the most common addictions is alcohol, with the average Australian drinking the equivalent of over nine litres of pure alcohol annually.
HOW DO ADDICTIONS HAPPEN?
We become addicted to a substance that we find both pleasurable and rewarding in some way. For an addiction to occur there needs to be a pay-off, at least initially. The area of our brain that is involved in addictions is called the ‘Reward Centre’ and is a complex circuitry of different brain pathways and brain chemicals, particularly dopamine. When we engage in activities or take substances that trigger the Reward Centre in our brain we experience a ‘high’ that can be subtle or quite noticeable. Since this emotional experience is a pleasurable one we can become hooked on wanting to engage in that activity and substance again. Some activities and substances are more likely to cause this, particularly nicotine, alcohol and illicit substances due to other chemicals in these substances causing reinforcement of the brain's pleasure circuitry. If we continue to take that particular substance or engage in the activity that we found pleasurable we can establish a neural pathway in our brain such that our brain continually seeks to repeat it. This is much like a train track that we build in our brains that establishes a path of thinking and behaving.
For this reason, current science recognises addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Just as heart disease damages the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. This happens as the brain goes through a series of changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive towards compulsive behaviour even if you no longer want to participate in that behaviour. The end point of addiction is that it seems to take on a life of its own. Luckily, addictions can be broken. Before we look at some of the steps you can take to break an addiction in your life consider whether you may have an addictive personality.
COULD YOU HAVE AN ADDICTIVE PERSONALITY?
I often get asked whether someone could have an addictive personality. The answer to this question is possibly. Current research suggests that there is not one type of personality that exists that is particularly predisposed to addiction. Saying that, there are factors that can lead someone to addiction, including a combination of certain psychological, social, biological and relational factors.
In clinical practice those individuals I encounter who are more likely to become addicted to a substance or behaviour usually have one or more of the following:
- Suffer from poor self-esteem
- Suffer from anxiety and/or depression
- Have heightened stress and lack coping skills
- Have experienced trauma, especially childhood trauma
- Display a level of impulsivity
- Have a parent or other close family member, partner or someone else in their immediate social circle who is regularly engaged with a particular addictive substance or in a certain behaviour.
So although there is not one addictive personality type per se, if you have developed an addiction to one particular substance or behaviour, then this suggests you have factors underlying your psychology or physiology make-up that make you susceptible to developing other addictions. However, if those factors were identified and dealt with in a healthy way then addictions may be a thing of your past. Let us explore what some of the steps to overcoming addiction might involve.
HOW TO BREAK AN ADDICTION
STEP 1 – RECOGNISE YOUR ‘WHY’
The first step in overcoming an addiction, aside from admitting that you have one, is to do some self-evaluation. Determine why you might be using a substance or engaging in a particular activity. Is it a way for you to cope with stress, anxiety, fatigue, depression or self-loathing? Is it to feel loved, included in a group, or to have fun and experience pleasure? There is always an underlying emotion involved in an addiction so ask yourself what your particular emotion might be.
STEP 2 – CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES
Consider when an addiction is no longer serving you but rather you are serving the addiction. If the underlying reason you have become addicted to a substance has not resolved then you will need to find alternative ways to cope. These ways need to be positive and healthy. In order to break a habit you need to replace it with something else. That ‘something else’ may be, for example, speaking with a counsellor or good friend, going for a walk, taking up a hobby, buying a pet to love and care for, deep breathing and meditation, or even journalling your thoughts and emotions to get them outside your mind and on paper.
STEP 3 – IDENTIFY YOUR TRIGGER TIMES
A trigger time is a particular time of day, or a situation, that causes you to feel like engaging in your addiction. Recognise when those times might be and do something that is incompatible with your addiction. If your addiction is to drink another glass of wine after dinner as a way to unwind from the stress of your day, consider going for a walk instead, which will force you to get out of the house and not pour another glass.
STEP 4 – SET YOUR LIFE UP FOR SUCCESS
Breaking an addiction is not about willpower, it is about setting yourself up so that you don’t succumb to temptation. This might mean, for example, not driving past the bottle shop on the way home but taking an alternate route. Or if pornography is your issue, consider putting the computer in the lounge room in full view of your family. The best way to break an addiction is not to have access to that substance or behaviour.
STEP 5 – BE ACCOUNTABLE
Accountability to someone else will help you stay on track. Consider joining a support group and enlisting the help of your family and friends to help you break an addiction. This of course means admitting to them that you have a problem in the first place. You will be surprised how empowered you feel after taking that step and you will find that addiction will have loosened its hold on you. This is because, deep down, shame is the engine that drives most addictions. As long as you can beat the fear of feeling ashamed and seek help in this area the addiction will soon be a thing of the past.
One patient of mine had a secret addiction to over-the-counter pain medication for many years. She was taking up to 3 times the recommended dose every day as a way to cope with stress. It took her around 12 months to finally admit to me that she had this addiction, but after she did, within a few months she was completely free of using those pain medications. So deep was her level of shame over this secret life that she was living, when she eventually came clean she felt such a sense of relief and empowerment she no longer felt the need to self-medicate.
STEP 6 - BE REWARDED FOR YOUR EFFORTS
Overcoming an addiction can be very difficult, but it can be done. When you see yourself making progress, even baby steps, you have to motivate yourself to keep going, so remember to reward yourself along the way (but not with the addictive substance!).
WHERE TO GO IF YOU NEED FURTHER HELP
If you are really struggling with an addiction in your life then perhaps it may be time to seek help from your health-care professional, who is experienced in dealing with addictions and can make the process easier. Keep in mind that breaking an addiction will involve relapse. This is normal and part of the process. The key is to not give up and to try again.
TAKE HOME POINTS
- Addictions are common and range from being hooked on substances such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food and illicit drugs to certain behaviours such as exercise, shopping, gambling, pornography, and even to
- Addictions occur due to activation and reinforcement of the Reward Centre in the This means that as we engage in addictions we develop a neural pathway that essentially etches in our brain that particular behaviour. The result is a compulsion to engage in that behaviour again and again.
- To break the cycle of addiction we can take steps to firstly recognise why we engaged in that addiction, look for alternative coping strategies, identify and avoid our trigger times, become accountable, and reward our efforts along the way.
- Realise that relapse is part of the normal process of breaking an addiction and should be expected. It is not a sign of failure but means that we need to keep going and try again if we are to loosen the grip of our addiction for good.
- Although there is not one particular personality type that is more prone to developing addictions, there are a few factors that can make a person more susceptible such as lifestyle factors, social factors, and emotional These all need to be individually dealt with to break an addiction in our lives.
- Help for addictions is available and speaking with your health-care professional may be an important first step in breaking an addiction.
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