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Addictions and Addictive Behaviors

Addictions are not just drug and alcohol related. "Any activity, substance, object, or behavior that has become the major focus of a person's life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally, psychologically or socially is considered an addictive behavior" (Engs, 1987). This is typically unconscious behavior and is unlikely the persons intention, but nonetheless is the result that the behavior produces. To use something or someone to obtain gratification, to self-medicate, or escape underlying problems is unhealthy and selfishly motivated, due to poor coping skills that often leads to an addictive behavior. While the initial decision to use addictive substances is voluntary, addiction becomes a condition in which the absence of the particular substance or behavior causes a psychological or physiological need.

Medical research describes addiction as a disease of the brain. The Diagnostic Standards Manual IV (DSM IV) of the American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as the continued compulsive use of a substance or compulsive behavior in spite of adverse health or social consequences.

Some researchers consider addiction a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors (NIDA, 2013). There is a mechanism in our brain commonly referred to as “the pleasure center” or "reward pathway", which consist of pleasure chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. When activated by certain drugs or behaviors, it overpowers the part of our brain that governs our will power, our judgments, logic and morality; decreasing activity in the pre-frontal cortex. This leads the addict to abandon what s/he knows is right. We can recognize this pattern when an addicted person has let their character, responsibilities, integrity and morality slide and take a back seat in order to obtain a “high”. Even other vital needs such as sleep, food and proper nourishment can be put off to attain it. When that happens, the hook is set and the addiction takes control.

“When we satisfy our physical needs and the lusts and appetites of our flesh, it gives us a false sense of a fulfilling life. In time however, such a soul will unavoidably feel out of control and may become frustrated, angry, dissatisfied and even suicidal. In time we begin to feel that the world seems

less and less able to deliver up and fulfill our needs and may begin to compromise our moral integrity by sacrificing others' needs to fulfill our own while justifying or rationalizing our behavior.”

~ John Pontius​

​ ​ A person can become addicted, dependent, or compulsively obsessed with numerous things. Some researchers imply that there are similarities between physical addiction to various chemicals, such as alcohol and heroin, and psychological dependence to activities such as compulsive gambling, sex, pornography (although pornography is different from other addictions, it is commonly categorized as any other addiction), work, gaming, running, exercise, shopping, eating disorders, etc. These artificial substances or behaviors will provide only temporary pleasures (chemically induced rewards) and temporary relief (instant gratifications). Some people may not regard that their needed daily dose of sweets or soda pop as an addiction as with other addictive substances. However, studies have found that the brain reacts similarly to junk food as they do to drugs (Johnson & Kenny, neuroscientists at the Scripp Research Institute in Florida).

In fact, refined white sugar is found to be the most addictive among all substances. ​Refined white sugar changes the profiles of peptides released from the pancreas, in addition to insulin; which results in a sluggish, immune-suppressant, fat-storing mode. Refined carbohydrates like breakfast cereals, waffles, bagels, pretzels, and most other processed foods quickly break down to sugar, increasing your insulin levels, and causing insulin resistance, which is the top underlying factor of nearly every chronic disease and condition, including weight gain. Which according to a report by the American Medical Association, every year, more than 280,000 deaths are associated with overeating and obesity. The major regulator of triglycerides in the diet is not cholesterol or fat, but sugar and refined carbohydrates. In 1950, Dr. John Gofman, a professor of medical physics at the University of California found that in general, it was the triglyceride level, not cholesterol level that was most closely linked to heart disease and atherosclerosis.

The similarities among overeating, obesity, and classical addictions have long been demonstrated. The Food Addiction Institute defines food addiction as a chemical dependence caused by changes in the brain in reaction to the biochemistry of a specific food, several foods, or volume of food. There’s a connection between an emotional state and a food substance (stimulus). Dr. Mercola says, "​Many people don't understand that emotional well-being is essential to their physical health. In terms of dieting for weight loss not addressing emotional issues--whether small or serious traumas from the past--is the primary reason that most people who lose weight often fail at keeping the weight off."

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), made the case that understanding the commonalities between food and drug addictions could offer insights into all types of compulsive behavior. Dr. Volkow went on to describe the common dysfunctions in the areas of the brain involved in pleasure and self-control that are seen in both food and drug addictions. These systems rely on the neurotransmitter dopamine; in both drug addictions and obesity, reductions in the number of dopamine (D2) receptors are common, causing the desire for more. Dopamine is a chemical messenger neurotransmitter in the brain that is linked to the reward system. When people eat highly palatable foods—sweet, salty and fat, taste buds in the tongue respond by sending signals to the brain reward circuitry. Studies show that these foods dull the dopamine receptors in parts of the brain. This data demonstrates that overconsumption of palatable food triggers addiction-like neuroadaptive responses in brain reward circuits and drives the development of compulsive eating. Common pleasure mechanisms may therefore underlie obesity and drug addiction. This further elucidates that food choices may lead to foods as a drug of abuse.

These behavior activities may produce beta-endorphins in the brain, which produces the "high" the person feels from the endorphins that are released. Some experts suggest that if a person continues to engage in the activity to achieve this feeling of well-being and euphoria, s/he may get into an addictive pattern that becomes compulsive and habitual. In so doing, s/he becomes physically addicted to her/his own brain chemicals, thus leading to the continuation of the behavior even though it may have negative social, physiological and/or psychological health consequences.

The damage done can begin within a few months of starting substance abuse. This is especially true the younger you are such as in the case of teens, because their brains are not yet fully developed. “When a teen starts using drugs or alcohol, the brain can remain stuck at the maturity level it was at when drug use began. If they stop drug or alcohol use in enough time (before age 25 when the brain is fully developed) there may be sufficient time for the brain to catch up if a healthy lifestyle follows. Unfortunately, few people are able to beat addiction quick enough, so many drug and alcohol users are left permanently stunted”, stated Merrill Norton, clinical assistant professor at the University of Georgia. Norton calls this “hijacking of the adolescent brain.”

“Since 2004 a 20 percent increase in suicide rates among teenagers has occurred with the number increasing annually…. and is currently the second leading cause of death among teens.” The overwhelming majority of those suicides came about because of addiction in one form or another. Universities report an astounding two hundred fifty percent increase in student requests for mental health counseling. Drug and alcohol abuse affects the ability to learn, plan, make decisions, and lead a responsible or normal life. It also leads to crime because adolescents lose their inhibition against violence. Without the capacity to plan for the future or exercise good judgment, most end up in jails or institutions, or die prematurely. Older addicts are rarer to find, because few live beyond fifty. Overtime, substance abuse not only damages the brain, but can cause damage to the heart, liver and kidneys", says Dr. Jeff Black, a psychiatrist with Laurelwood at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. “Methamphetamine's for example, is well known for causing drastic physical changes in appearance, such as rotting teeth and shallow skin, but also raises body temperature and dehydrates cell membranes, which kills brain cells. Just after six months of meth use, the teenagers brain can look very much like the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient”, says Norton.


What factors affect vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction? Vulnerability is a product of the interaction of a person’s biology, environment, comorbidity, and age. In other words, the familiar nature vs. nurture theory or the diathesis stress model both affect a person’s vulnerability. Diathesis refers to a predisposed genetic vulnerability or susceptibility to addiction (epigenetics), while stress refers to environmental stressors or triggers that can lead to an addiction. Research shows that people generally take drugs to either feel good (i.e., sensation seekers or those who are enticed by experimenting and risk-taking), or to feel better and avoid pain (i.e., self-medicators or individuals who take drugs in an attempt to cope with difficult problems or situations, including stress, trauma, and symptoms of mental disorders) (NIDA, Drug Abuse And Addiction, p. 12). The apparent etiology of addiction involves an interaction between a substance’s reward effects; the individual’s biogenetic vulnerability; and modulatory factors such as the presence of pain, stress, and the psychosocial context of use (Hurd, 2006; Kahan et al., 2006).

The seriousness of addiction disorders should not be underestimated. Many people simply brand addicted persons as defiant, lazy, and irresponsible. This attitude is frequently seen among authority figures, such as parents, family, or teachers of addicted children or teens. Moral and behavioral theorists would argue that in adolescent cases, addictions were initiated from peer and social pressure for the sake of social acceptance or gaining social status, or as a rite of passage into adulthood that impelled addiction. Either of which suggests that moral values and structure systems were not well founded. Moral decisions are governed by individual values, which are fundamental norms regarding principles, ideals, or standards. However, there are a number of theories on what constitutes morality. For example, there are social theories, cognitive theories, psychoanalytic theories, and personality theories.

Addictions frequently develop because of emotional pain from one’s past, e.g., abuse, belittling, or criticism, which can lead to perfectionism in the individual (Hagedorn and Moorhead, 2010) or feelings of guilt and shame. In most cases, however, individuals with addictive behaviors have either a biochemical disorder, came from an abusive (psychologically, verbally, physically, sexually) family or have endured other adverse childhood experiences (ACE) related to environmental, cultural, social, or other types of extreme stress or trauma. It would be fair to say that addictions are often a response to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or acute stress disorder (ASD), including the recent loss of a loved one, or subsequent behaviors that developed after the occurrence of child abuse or molestation. Each of these incidences can socialize youngsters into deviant behavior, or cause them to turn to addictive substances as a way to cope or self-medicate.

Addiction also has a biogenetic link and is twice as likely if members of the family have used or abused drugs or alcohol. "Individuals who have developed strong coping skills to deal with life's pressures have less risk of becoming addicted to drugs. The younger a person is when s/he begins using drugs, the more likely s/he is to become addicted. This may be true because younger individuals have not developed the coping skills necessary to deal with life's ups and downs” (Stevens & Smith, 2013). Social, behavioral, environmental, and genetic factors then, all contribute to the development of drug addiction, while stress often increases the susceptibility to addiction. The etiology of addiction is multi-faceted and complex. It remains difficult to distinguish between substance use as a cause of problems or as the consequence of problems because of the many factors involved in addiction. New research and schools of thought are beginning to view addiction with an integrated theoretical or psychodynamic approach using a “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” model (Stevens & Smith, p. 82, 2013). As illustrated, multiple factors such as genes, stress-relief mechanisms, personality types, and brain reward systems all appear to influence the etiology of substance use and addiction. Some people use “downers” such as marijuana, alcohol sedatives or pain killers to calm and medicate hyperactive brain systems. Or some use “uppers” such as cocaine and methamphetamine's to stimulate underactive areas of the brain. Unfortunately, these substances are harmful, addictive and can cause brain damage, even permanent damage and are no medication at all.

A person suffering from traumatic disorders may engage in disruptive or destructive coping mechanisms, often without being fully aware of the causes of their own actions. Some traumatized individuals may feel permanently damaged when trauma symptoms do not go away and they do not believe their situation will improve. This can leave them with feelings of despair, helplessness, loss of self-esteem, lack of self-love, frequent depression, feeling anxious if they do not have control over their environment and have impossible expectations of themselves. This often leads to addictive behaviors. Triggers and cues act as reminders of trauma, and cause anxiety, panic attacks, anger, mood swings and other associated emotions. Consequently, intense feelings of anger may frequently surface, sometimes in very inappropriate or unexpected situations, as danger may always seem to be lurking, as it was experienced from past events. Self-destructive behaviors will continue until we have sufficiently reframed these traumatic memories and focus on developing a healthy relationship with ourselves.

The aim is to subjugate these urges and temptations, by taking the courage to face the real issue of the pain inside, remedy what is ailing you, and identify what triggers are causing you to reach out for a destructive escape. Turning to an addiction is nearly always a way to escape in an effort to medicate the hurt or pain that you’d rather avoid or ignore. Have you ever felt an emptiness or void deep inside you? Nearly every addiction or suicide can be traced to a sense of meaningless, worthlessness or no purpose worth living for. A painful or tragic event merely triggers it. According to the ACIM, depression comes from a sense of being deprived of something you want and do not have, but in actuality you are deprived of nothing; except by your own perceptions and decisions. Know that this need not be, and decide otherwise.

Just as the 12 step program incorporates; the answer is not in our physical or mental aspects, but found in our spiritual connection. The answer to the problem is not in the same mind it was created in, but in the infinite intelligence of our understanding. Refrain from beliefs about needing drugs or medications and get to the bottom of your true feelings. Because depression is common in individuals with addictive behaviors, it is important to see a professional or get to the bottom of it before things worsen. When treating addiction and addressing past trauma’s the awareness of emotions and feelings may have been suppressed or desensitized for years. When finally facing sobriety the cascade of emotions can come flooding in and persons may need the help of a professional. It is especially important to address feelings of guilt and shame, because these feelings often reinforce addictive behaviors.

​To feel good as constant as possible, avoid doing all drugs—legal or illegal. Question any long-term or chronic prescription or at least take the lowest possible dose required to do the job. Remember that nature has always provided us with answers and natural alternatives. "Experience how amazing, responsive and resilient, lively and blissful the natural undrugged state can be. Being drug-free allows your system to focus on healing your own bodymind rather than compensation for drug-induced alterations that prevent you from experiencing your full range of potential feelings that restore and maintain your natural bliss" (Pert, 1997).


American Medical Association Allison, Fontaine, Manson, Stevens, & Vanltallie, (1999)

Gene-Jack Wang, Brookhaven National Laboratory Medical Department, and Nora Volkow, National Institute on Drug Abuse; (2001). Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed S. “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward.”PLoS ONE, August 2007.

Pert, Candace (1997). Molecules of Emotion, The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. Therapeutics, Paul Johnson, Paul Kenny; The Scripps Research Institute, Jupiter, Florida). Neuroscience 13,635–641(2010) ‘The Real Killers: Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates’, The Blaylock Wellness Report, Vol. 10, No.1 Pg. 9. (January 2013)

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