We frail humans can, all too easily, become addicted, psychologically and/or physically, to a large array of substances and behaviours. I provide a list of examples below:
– work (people who are workaholics may also suffer from the condition known as perfectionism))
– food (people who overindulge in food to help them to cope with psychological pain are often informally referred to as COMFORT EATERS or EMOTIONAL EATERS)
– exercise (especially bodybuilding and/or jogging)
– watching TV
– surfing the internet
– computer games
– relationships (constantly getting bored with existing relationships and therefore perpetually and quickly moving from one partner to another always in search of fresh excitement and thrills that often accompany the start of a brand new relationship).
– gambling (with online gambling becoming an increasing problem)
– risk-taking (e.g. driving too fast, dangerous sports etc to gain a so-called adrenalin buzz’)
– excessive spending (again, this can produce a temporary ‘high’ until the novelty of the item purchased wears off (usually quickly necessitating further purchases…)
Root Cause Of Such Dependencies:
We can become psychologically and/or physically dependent on behaviours and substances such as those mentioned above in an attempt to fill a void caused by a more profound dependency deriving from our dysfunctional childhood.
These dependencies/addictions are essentially defence mechanisms – a way of trying to reduce the level of our psychological suffering. Psychologists refer to this defence mechanism as DISSOCIATION.
The more traumatic our childhood was, the more psychological defences we are likely to develop; this translates to the fact that many people suffer from multiple addictions. Also, those who had the most traumatic childhoods are likely to be those with the deepest, most intractable, addictions.
Symptoms Of The Dependent Individual:
As well as having one, or several, addictions, the person with a dependent personality may also :
– feel an abiding sense of abandonment/rejection
– constantly feel anxious
– be easily angered and his/her angry outbursts may be very intense/lacking control
– feel a sense of emptiness
– feel life lacks meaning
– have a very weak sense of own identity
– feel that s/he has been used, exploited and taken advantage of (often by parents in childhood)
– feel s/he has been manipulated and controlled (often by patents in childhood)
– feel a general sense of confusion
– feel a deep sense of loneliness and ‘disconnection’ from others/society
– often feel fearful / a sense of impending doom
Also, in childhood, as a result of our trauma, we may have been prone to angry/aggressive outbursts, withdrawn and ‘moody’, negative, pessimistic and ‘difficult’ (actually, that sounds uncannily like me as an adolescent. And as an adult? Let’s not go there).
Addictions deliver short-term benefits (if they didn’t, people would not become addicted in the first place).
For example, addictions may provide :
– temporary relief from stress and anxiety
– temporary feelings of well-being
– temporary feelings of control and/or power
However, these benefits must be off-set against, for example, such considerations as the following:
– they mask the real issues and prevent the individual from dealing with his/her life problems (such as seeking therapy for a traumatic childhood)
-they lead to avoidance of confronting and working through/processing true feelings
The Addiction Cycle:
Addiction leads to a vicious cycle from which it becomes increasingly difficult to break free. First, there is an emotional trigger such as an argument with a partner.
This leads to stress and anxiety which in turn leads to a craving for the addictive substance / to perform the addictive behaviour in an attempt to reduce this anxiety.
There then follows the addictive ritual (e.g. drinking a bottle of whisky, going to a casino with all one’s hard-earned cash).
After the substance is consumed / the behaviour carried out feelings of guilt follow…and so the cycle continues (until effective therapy is sought and administered).
The Fundamental Elements Of Addiction:
The main elements of addiction are:
1) An increasing obsession/ preoccupation with the substance/behaviour of addiction
2) Increased tolerance: the person needs more and more of whatever s/he’s addicted to due to ‘diminishing returns’ (e.g. takes increasingly more alcohol to produce desired effect – in this case, possibly, oblivion).
3) Diminishing control: e.g. a gambler may start losing larger and larger sums of money, overtaken by powerful and self-destructive impulses
4) Secretiveness: e.g. an alcoholic may hide bottles of whisky about the house and at work and deny to others that s/he drinks excessively
5) Denial to self/self-delusion: e.g. the drug addict who tells him/herself ‘giving up would be easy’ but that s/he currently ‘chooses’ not to. Or may deny to themselves their addiction is doing them any harm when it is clear to others that this is patently not the case).
6) Mood swings e.g. extreme anxiety suddenly changing to severe aggression/anger
7) Loss of self-respect: e.g. the alcoholic who can no longer be bothered concerning him/herself with his/her appearance / personal hygiene
8) Loss of moral principles e.g. the drug addict who steals from friends to get money to pay for drugs
9) Suicidal feelings/impulses
10) Exacerbation/development of psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and paranoia.
11) Physical illness (e.g. liver disease, lung cancer)
EXPERIMENTS ON REASONS FOR ADDICTION INVOLVING RATS:
Experiments involving rats help to cast light upon why people develop addictions. These experiments involve measuring how addicted to cocaine rats become in two different conditions. These two conditions are as follows:
A solitary rat in an impoverished environment (i.e. one in which there is no stimulation, just an empty cage).
The rat has the company of other rats and has an enriched (i.e. stimulating) environment.
– In condition one rats became extremely addicted to cocaine, becoming heavily addicted
– In condition, two rats ingested far less cocaine (75% less) and did not become addicted
(The psychologist, Professor Bruce Alexander, pioneered these studies).
If we extrapolate from this research (i.e. apply it to humans) it would be expected that :
Individuals with empty, lonely lives are significantly more likely to become addicts and turn to drug abuse than individuals with full and socially integrated lived. Indeed, there is much research evidence to support this view and a growing school of thought is of the view that a person’s life situation plays a more important role in an individuals addiction/drug abuse than the addictive substance itself.
It is likely, then, that a person’s life circumstances play a vital role in whether or not a person becomes an addict. Therefore, it follows that the most effective way to reduce addiction is to help addicts/drug abusers re-connect with society and gain dependable social support.
Because those who have suffered childhood trauma are more likely to develop chaotic, disenfranchised lives as adults, as many of the articles on this site have shown, such people are at greater risk than others of living in the kind of social isolation which fosters drug addiction.
Study Involving Individuals Who Had Experienced Childhood Trauma:
Another study, involving humans and carried out by Khoury et al., (2010) found that 60 per cent of individuals who had experienced significant childhood trauma developed problems relating to addiction later on in life and, also, there was a positive correlation between the severity of PTSD symptoms and the number of addictive substances that the individual user.
Review Of Studies:
Jacobsen et al., (2001) carried out a review of the literature on the link between PTSD and substance misuse and confirmed that the two were highly, positively correlated. Jacobsen and his colleagues concluded that, according to the literature they reviewed, it was likely that PTSD and substance abuse disorders were ‘functionally related’ and that PTSD frequently leads to dependence upon addictive substances in an attempt to reduce symptoms of PTSD.
Jacobsen and his colleagues also noted that, due to dependence, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as physiological arousal may make PTSD symptoms even more severe and that this, in turn, may lead to relapse.
Treating Addiction :
Addicts, sadly, are too frequently blamed for not being able to overcome their addictions; however, this can be based on the misunderstanding that the addict must be hedonistic. This, though, is to miss the point.
The addict is not so much seeking pleasure but, rather, is desperately seeking relief from the intolerable emotional pain (dissociating). In other words, the addict is self – anaesthetizing.
Very frequently, the unendurable mental anguish that the addict feels stems from their childhood trauma.
Internal versus external coping mechanisms:
It is necessary for the addict to stop relying on external coping mechanisms (such as alcohol and drugs) to cope with their psychological pain but instead cultivate internal coping mechanisms such as:
– learning how to self-soothe
– using visualization techniques (such as visualizing a safe place whenever, for example, an incident occurs which triggers anxieties linked to their childhood trauma).
Survivor versus victim:
If no therapeutic work has taken place in order to help the addict resolve the feelings associated with his/her childhood trauma, s/he is likely to remain trapped in the role of victim (in effect, their psychological and emotional development is arrested at the time of the trauma).
However, when therapy begins it can help the addict develop an alternative view of him/herself – that of a brave and strong survivor.
The kinds of childhood trauma that are particularly likely to cause symptoms such as addictions and arrested psychological and emotional development include:
– being treated with contempt/disdain (eg always being on the receiving end of ‘put-downs‘ by a parent/parents/primary caregiver)
– sexual and physical abuse
– verbal and emotional abuse
Such treatment frequently causes the child to develop what psychologists refer to as a negative cognitive triad, i.e:
– a negative view of self
– a negative view of others
– a negative view of the future
In the absence of effective therapeutic intervention, these negative attitudes may endure for a lifetime.
Other symptoms the individual who suffered childhood trauma may develop are:
– a deep and abiding sense of alienation from others/society
– avoidant behaviour, including fear of intimacy (due to fears of being vulnerable to rejection if s/he gets too emotionally close to others).
– an irrational sense of shame
– self-destructive behaviour
When talking to a mental health-care clinician about one’s experience of childhood trauma, it is very important to provide the following details:
– age at the time of trauma
– severity of the trauma
– who committed the abuse e.g. stranger, family member (more harmful if a family member)
– was it a single incident or ongoing?
– was the event/ act/s intentional or accidental?
– was escape possible?
– what was the level of severity?
– was the trauma response one of flight, fight or freeze?
Jacobsen et al. 2010. Substance Use Disorders in Patients With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Review of the Literature.The American Journal Of Psychiatry. Published Online:1 Aug 2001https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.158.8.1184
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).