ADDICTION OR HABIT?

Nick Youngson

Image courtesy of Nick Youngson

Serious and life-threatening addictions cause devestation in people’s lives. Substance addiction – especially involving alcohol – includes the factor of physical dependence.  Such dependence is NOT the only aspect of substance addiction but it’s important to recognise it. For instance, sudden withdrawal from severe alcohol abuse requires medical supervision. Most people do well with a ‘home detox’ using a simple prescription. But whether substance or behavioural addiction, the roots go deeper than physical dependence.

There are many, many ‘theories of addiction’. There is much ongoing specialist research. There are very many views on what is the best way to recover. It should be noted that as many as 40% of people recover ‘spontaneously’ without treatment or intervention. Many young people, for instance, ‘mature out’ of an addiction as they take on work and family responsibilities. Some theories of addiction see it as a brain ‘disease’, other see it as something that was learned and can become unlearned. Recovery programmes such as the 12-steps (AA, NA, GA etc) are based on the idea that addiction is a disease for life and an addict must follow the programme (going to meetings, for instance) as long as they are alive. Other recovery methods, stressing the concept of learning, seek to help people ‘unlearn’ their ways of thinking, even being able to return to sensible drinking or gambling or whatever.

The good news is that most people do recover from addiction. The less good news is that they often have to deal with the devestation that the addiction has caused in their life in the areas of relationships, finance, family, employment, mental and physical health. the worst news sadly is that some people never manage to recover from addiction.

Each individual will experience addiction in ways common to others but at the same time unique to them – to their character, their circumstances, their every aspect of life. It’s known that some mental disorders are predictors of addiction. It is true that for many people suffering from a chronic (often undiagnosed) depression will turn to substances or behaviours for temporary release from their pain. It’s also known that adverse child hood experiences and trauma are good predictors of addiction. But not everybody who has a mental disorder, depression, or any other factor becomes an addict. And it is certainly true that many people with none of the main predictors do become addicts. Addiction is a complex, baffling and horrible condition which is impossible to understand in its entirety.

Happily, most people don’t suffer from the more serious addictions (though you may be surprise by the number that do, and how addiction strikes all walks of life, albeit that the more oppressed and disadvantaged sectors of the population suffer disproportionately).

All of us, however, have habits. Many of our habits are life enhancing or good for us. Some are not so, and often we recognise in ourselves impulses to do things that we know in the long or short run are bad for us. As people age, there is a tendency for some to lose the habits of exercise, for instance, and instead a ‘comfortable’ or couch potato routine becomes habitual. Industry makes millions by offering the ‘sure’ way to lose weight or become healthier.

In business marketing, growing sophistication has led to new ways of ‘hooking’ people into consumption patterns or habits that favour one product over another. Advertising has always been generally successful else so much money would not have been spent on it. Yes,it’s true that you and I never fall for the guiles of advertisers – but we, of course, are the exceptions!

The new era of internet communication has brought new methods of persuading consumers to buy, and we’ll look at some of these ways on this site. However, our main purpose is to question how ‘addicted’ we are becoming to our electronic devices? Once the worry was that people were becoming ‘addicted’ to television; now there is an increasing number of  ever louder claims that the internet is ‘making us stupid’ or that social media are making us more anxious and depressed. The section on this website about Education will look at some history of similar worries in the past about new technologies.  For now, let it remain a question: are we (or someone else) knowingly or unconsciously habitually attached or ‘addicted’ in our online usage?

 

The whole area of addiction is incredibly complex and there are many rival theories among academics and other experts. Questions around how far people can become addicted to digital technology are similarly complex, and we’re just scratching the surface here. You’ll find more detailed focus on addiction in our project on gambling where we look at how , if at all, new forms of betting involve factors which make addiction more likely.

In this section we take an extremely  superficial overview of habits and behavioural addictions. Skip through and if anything grabs your attention follow the links. We look at some of the basic psychological theories of  how habits and addictions are products of learning. We stress that this is only one approach to addiction. There have been huge developments in understanding genetics and brain chemistry which we don’t look at here but you will find a little about neurochemistry here.

If you have any worries that you or someone you know may need to know more about the subject, or where to find help and support, our SUPPORT section provides links.

KEY POINTS

  • We are creatures, animals. We share the brain of a reptile and a monkey. Deep down our brains look the same as a lizard’s. Millions of years of evolution built layers over the reptilian brain. Humans have a neocortex which is the very thick layer of grey matter.
  • With the human brain we think, can imagine, remember and see into the future. We can use reason and logic. Humans are rational animals.
  • Without habits our lives would be chaotic. Habits can be good or bad or neutral but we learn them in the same way.
  • We are driven or motivated by emotions. Emotions call us to motion or action. Much of what we do and think is a result of our emotions and feelings rather than our ‘reason’.
  • There is no clear line between a habit and an addiction. Some habits such as cleaning teeth are mild. Others, such as spending hours on the internet or social media are strong and harder to change. Severe habits like substance dependence or gambling (called a behavioural addiction) are very hard to break and can bring terrible consequences.

The brain has evolved over millions of years from the reptilian brain but humans still contain a ‘lizard’ brain. This cross section of a primate’s brain shows the thick, folded cortex covering the older parts.

  • Habits are formed by learning. Learning which involves powerful emotions – such as pleasure or fear – can lay down habits very quickly.

There is a research programme about ‘Digital Addiction’ between Department of Computing and Informatics and the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Science and Technology at Bournemouth University. Their site says:

Recent studies demonstrated association between the use of technology and certain addiction symptoms such as withdrawal symptoms, tolerance to the continuous increase of usage, relapse when trying to reduce or adjust the usage style and mood modification when one is online. Research has also shown that such excessive and obsessive usage and preoccupation about technology are associated with undesirable behaviours such as reduced creativity, anxiety and occasional disconnection from reality.

While the wealth of information technology and online connectivity are prominent characteristics of the quality of life, their addictive use may result in a less sustainable and connected society. Governments and societies have started to introduce precautionary procedures to stop Digital Addiction. For example, from 2007 China introduced an anti-online gaming addiction system to restrict players under 18 to spending less than 3 hours a day playing digital games. In the USA, Digital Detox programs are available.

This is specialised expert research into a very complex area. The research into addiction generally reveals its own complexity, and there are many competing theories. Here, we are just raising some questions: are we in danger of becoming ‘digital addicts’? What are the implications for our children? If we are in some way digital addicits what are the negative effects on our wellbeing, our relationships, our mental health?

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