Nearly everyone has had a taste of what it would be like to have an
addiction—eating a second (and third) piece of cake, staying out until
4 a.m. drinking when work starts at seven, buying three pairs of shoes
when you had just enough cash to cover one.
You know the consequences: the stomachache and spare tire, aching head
and lousy day at work, the credit card debt, and above all—the guilt.
But the immediate payoff, whether it's pleasure or simply a sensation
of feeling alive, calls to you like a siren's song.
In the addicted mind, the urge hijacks the brain, overpowering the
analytical part involved in good decision-making. Whether sex,
shopping, or heroin, mental health professionals generally distinguish
a habit from an addiction when it takes center stage and shoves
everything else off, destroying relationships, finances, and careers.
As one mental health expert put it, a healthy person plans exercise
around their life.
An addict plans their life around exercise.
The Making of an Addict The scientific community has long tried to determine the factors that
cause addiction. Why for instance, are an estimated nine of every 100
Americans shopaholics, when presumably we all buy things and could be susceptible? What is it that causes about 15 percent of all people in the United States who drink to become dependent?
Researchers don't completely understand addiction and perhaps neverwill, but the majority does agree that the recipes for addiction vary and can include an array of factors including psychological demons,
social environment, lack of intellectual stimulation, learned behavior from family members, genetics, and depression.
Parsing out the ingredients and determining what causes addiction versus what was caused by it is like trying to decide if the meat was tough before being cooked or if it was tough because it was cooked improperly. But scientists have come a long way in understanding the brain circuitry involved in addiction. The research has raised hopes for medications that will quash insatiable cravings, not simply quench them with
another drug as methadone does for heroin.
Addiction sans Substance As experts examine non-substance abuse addictions (and the acceptance
that they exist grows), they have found that brains can react to activities the way they do to drugs.
For example, in obese, compulsive eaters, scans have shown hyperactivity in the parts of the brain that interpret food stimuli—the lips, tongue, and mouth. For them, eating is a drug, an
For addictions to gambling and shopping, many experts say that the same feel-good chemicals come into play.
The cycle for nonchemical addictions also mirrors that of substance abusers. They experience the fleeting "high," the remorse, and then feel so badly that the only respite is to repeat it again.
All this provides the scientific backdrop for understanding why, when psychotherapist April Benson talks about her clients, they sound more like heroin junkies than fashionistas. In her book, To Buy or Not to
Buy, Benson examines the roots and impacts of an addiction that devastates millions of Americans.
Recovery Benson and many mental health workers underscore that to overcome addictions, people must address the underlying causes. Our emotions and experiences shape and are shaped by our brain chemistry.
Recovering requires people to understand what drives them to their addiction—whether it's to feel the thrill of life, escape from psychological pain, gain a sense of control, or some combination of
these desires. Without understanding the reasons and finding a healthy way to manage them, addicts will often kick a habit only to replace it with another one.
Perhaps, that partly explains why the most common cause of death for Alcoholics Anonymous members is health problems due to cigarette smoking.