What are Psychologists Saying About Addiction?

Posted August 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 8 updates since. Reading time: 5 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on addiction psychology? Email Toni at editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Addiction goes well beyond abusing alcohol or being dependent upon illicit drugs. It is not simply a choice to get drunk or high, but a serious psychological and physiological condition with a difficult road to sobriety.

What’s more, addiction includes many realms other than substance use and abuse. Gambling, sex, food, and shopping are just a few examples of non-substance related addictions that millions of people worldwide live with each and every day.

Psychologists recognize addiction as a condition in which an individual repeatedly pursues the use of a substance or engages in a behavior to reap its rewarding effects (i.e., the relaxed feeling of using opioids), but whose effects can have serious social, emotional, and physical consequences. However, they also recognize that addiction is multi-faceted with many potential causes and impacts that extend to family, friends, and others in the lives of those living with addiction.

Addiction Arises From Many Different Risk Factors

As noted earlier, despite what some cynics believe, addiction is not a choice. One does not consciously decide that they want to be an alcoholic, for example.

Instead, addiction can develop as a result of many different risk factors. For some, an addiction might begin because of simple exposure and take hold because of easy access to the addictive substance or event.

For others, there might be a biological predisposition for addictive behavior or psychological conditions like stress or anxiety that make addiction more likely to develop.

What psychologists seek to make clear is that there is no strict formula for the development of addiction for every addict – every person’s addiction story and experience is different. 

Furthermore, there is no way to predict with 100 percent accuracy who will develop an addiction. For example, twin studies show that while it is more likely for one identical twin to abuse cocaine if their twin also abuses cocaine, it still only occurs in both twins 47 percent of the time. So, even two people with identical genetics and highly similar upbringings might experience vastly different outcomes when it comes to addiction.

Through years and years of research, psychologists have pinned down a number of risk factors that are associated with the development of addictions. They include:

  • Family dynamics – Lack of parental involvement in their kids’ lives as well as abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual in nature) are all associated with the development of addiction later in life.
  • Accessibility – If something like heroin is easy to obtain, the likelihood of addiction is increased.
  • Social structure – One’s peers can have a significant influence over one’s behaviors, especially during childhood and adolescence. Studies show that strong, positive bonds with peers (and one’s family and the community at large) are associated with a reduced likelihood of addiction developing.
  • Personality – One’s personality traits can influence whether addiction develops or not. For example, impulsivity is linked to substance abuse and is a risk factor for relapse as well.
  • Presence of a psychological condition – Individuals with disorders such as PTSD, depression, and attention deficit disorder have a greater risk of addiction. Likewise, individuals that have experienced trauma are more likely to develop an addiction.
  • Gender – Across virtually all age groups, males are more likely than females to use illicit drugs and become addicted to them.
  • Genetics – Various genetic factors influence one’s propensity for addiction. For example, genetic factors account for approximately 50 percent of the risk for developing a substance use disorder.

Though this is not an exhaustive list of all the risk factors associated with addiction, these are among the most common factors.

Psychologists Recognize That Neurobiology Plays a Significant Role in Addiction

In addition to the list of common risk factors above, it is clear that all addictive behaviors have commonalities from a neurobiological perspective.

That is, the development of addiction is strongly linked to the areas of the prefrontal cortex that are involved in reward, reinforcement, and motivation, all of which are associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.

More specifically, as someone continues to engage in behaviors for which a reward is achieved (i.e., hitting the jackpot at a casino) neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex can actually be changed. As those neural networks are altered, attention becomes more and more focused on the addictive substance or activity. Impulse control is weakened, cravings are increased, and addiction is more likely to develop.

However, psychologists and others that study addiction are quick to point out that these changes to one’s neurobiology are reversible. Once the substance or behavior that is the subject of the addiction is no longer used, brain pathways begin to repair themselves.

Addiction Has Significant Impacts That Go Beyond the Addict

With so much time and attention paid to achieving the pleasurable outcomes of using a substance or engaging in an addictive behavior, many people with an addiction might not even be cognizant of the fact that they have a problem.

This, in turn, can cause enormous stress in relationships and at work, and addicted individuals can quickly find themselves isolated, depressed, and alone, each of which can exacerbate the addiction even further.

And while some physiological effects of addiction can be reversed relatively quickly, the social and emotional tolls of addiction often prove to be far more difficult to overcome.

This ripple effect extending outward from the individual with an addiction speaks to the enormous social ramifications of addiction. Whether it’s drugs or alcohol, sex or food, or something in between, having an addiction can cause families to break up, children to distance themselves from parents, and friends to abandon one another.

Since addiction involves the whole self and one’s functioning on a variety of levels, recovery isn’t just about “kicking the habit.” Instead, addiction recovery is often a multi-modal approach that includes detox, skills training, family therapy, 12-step programs, and, in some cases, pharmaceutical therapies, just to name a few.

The important point to remember is that addiction can be overcome and that treatment can help addicts return to being mentally and physically healthy, emotionally stable, contributing members of society. The road to recovery is seldom easy, though. Relapse is common, but with proper support from friends and family and a strong working relationship with a psychologist, counselor, or another mental health professional, life can return to normal.

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