Why do you become an addict?

7a35d475-8ff5-4c35-8b6d-a07361109c8dAddiction is associated with alcohol and drugs, but that is not the whole story.  You can also get addicted to anything from gambling to chocolates. Addiction is a psychological/physical component; the affected person is unable to control the aspects of the addiction, without help, because of the mental or physical conditions involved.

What causes addiction and why do some people become addicts while others do not? How much do you understand addiction? The causes of addiction vary considerably.  They are generally caused by a combination of physical, mental, circumstantial and emotional factors.

First contact

Addiction has to start with exposure, and at some point casual use shifts to dependence.

Dr Gillian Tober, president of the Society for the Study of Addiction, said all addiction has to start with first use.

“It is usually for social reasons – boyfriend, girlfriend, group of friends – it’s usually not pleasant but there is a social reward.”  This then becomes reinforced. “People say their first cigarette is disgusting. Some say never again, some break through and reveal the pharmacological effect.”

Drugs directly feed the reward circuitry of the brain, and even in cases such as gambling the brain can learn to look forward to the thrill.  The brain adapts to the drug, becomes tolerant to it and demands more each time. Physiological dependence – addiction – emerges.

 Resisting addiction

Not everyone becomes addicted, though many people drink.

Ilana Crome, a professor of addiction psychiatry at Keele University, said great progress had been made in recent years in understanding why that is.

“We’re beginning to understand the variety of mechanisms in the addictive process, but do we know exactly what causes addiction? We don’t.  “It seems to touch the very essence of behaviour, making it very difficult to research and understand.”

The chair of the Faculty of Addictions at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, says “One way to describe addiction is to think about it as a disorder with biological, psychological and social aspects.”  He said that research suggests “people who are vulnerable to addiction may be ‘wired’ differently” particularly in the brain’s orbito-frontal cortex.

“This part of the brain is involved in the weighing up of the pros and cons of a particular action, in other words, decision making.”  Psychological trauma, such as through childhood neglect or bereavement, is common, he said.  However there are clearly many cases which do not fit these risk factors.

Prof Crome said: “We can’t predict exactly who will become addicted, but many people who are from a difficult background who might be predicted to develop a problem don’t and that is a fascinating thing.”

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