What is Addiction?


Addiction is defined as a state in which an individual compulsively engages in rewarding stimuli despite highly adverse consequences. So by definition, one can become addicted to many things: alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, sexual activity, shopping, exercising, eating junk food, and even things like work, money, and power. In non-compulsive amounts, many of these can be good for you, but if incessantly sought out and repeated despite consciously understanding the negative repercussions, they become an addiction.

Key Points:

To understand addiction, there are three key issues that will be the focus of each and every article, blog post, interview, and link on RtAD. In brief, they are:

1) Early Childhood Trauma: from physical abuse to severe neglect.

• A child's central nervous system and brain development in the first two years of their life heavily depend on the stimuli surrounding them in this crucial, formative, and receptive time. A violent, stressful, and/or unaffectionate environment affects both the development of the nervous system, and the brain's neurochemical activity.

2) The Power of Repetition: conditioning, and the "cue-routine-reward" circuitry of repeated behaviour.

• The more we repeat a behaviour, the more difficult it becomes for our thoughts to consciously stop us from doing it, and the more powerful the 'reward' becomes. Positive association helps initiate and reinforce the behaviour, and negative association sets in the cognitive avoidance of a behaviour. Negative association can also begin the process of breaking away from the behaviour once heavily entrenched in its cue-routine-reward circuitry.

3) Isolation and Exclusion: a fixation on the individual's actions as entirely separate from others.

• Excessive independence and isolation when stressed, perpetuate addiction because the reward centre of the brain is less sustainably active the longer one spends in avoidance of positive social connectivity. A society that doesn't secure comfortable social connections, and rather, depends on stress and competition for economic progress, drives human behaviour toward instant gratification in the form of quick, fast 'rewards' (endorphin release in the brain).

Any combination of the above three dispositions leads to a lack of impulse control, bursts of anger at anything getting in the way of gratifying (salient) stimuli, high-stress levels, and depression (dips in neurochemical activity). This will perpetuate overconsumption, consumerism, and other addictive behaviours.

Important biochemicals (simplified):

The following terms and terminology are critical to understand what happens physiologically when an individual experiences addiction.

A) Dopamine: Narrows your focus on the most salient stimuli in your environment, responsible for feelings of "excitement" and energetic drive towards a substance.

B) Endorphins: Light up the reward centre of the brain - responsible for the "ahhh" feeling of relaxation and those brief moments of happy, feel-good sensations. Similar to a warm hug from someone you love. The brain's natural opioids. 

C) Adrenalin: Assisted by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) adrenalin is in part responsible for feelings of stress and anxiety; stored memories and emotions in the limbic system submit the body this "fight or flight" syndrome, where thoughts are clouded, and fear and anger take place.