Why addictive behaviours are hard to stop

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Why do addicts want higher and higher doses of a drug, even if it’s ruining their lives?

Why do people spend endlessly on gambling only even though it saps their financial resources?

Why do people that are addicted to junk food even though it’s fattening them up?

When it comes to how addiction works, drug addicts are not so different from those who get addicted to seemingly less harmful behaviours like food addiction.

We like to think of drug addicts as those who’ve deviated from ‘normal’ behaviour but the truth is we’ve all engaged in that seemingly abnormal behaviour at least once in our life.

addictive behaviour
You can be addicted to a wide range of things from pharmaceutical pills to alcohol (substance abuse) and shopping to gambling (behavioural addiction).

How addiction works

Without going much into the neurological details, I’ll briefly explain what happens in the brain once we get addicted to some substance or activity. For the sake of simplicity let’s assume it’s a drug.

Every time you hear about addiction, you’ll invariably hear the name ‘dopamine’. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that performs many functions in the brain, the most significant and famous ones being ‘learning about rewards’ and giving us that pleasurable feeling.1

When a person takes a drug that stimulates the release of dopamine, he feels extreme pleasure and is motivated to take the drug again to feel the same high.

Next time he takes the drug, the level of excitement and pleasure isn’t usually the same as the previous time. This is because indulging in addictive behaviours makes our brain dopamine resistant- a sort of desensitization.

What that means is the more we indulge in addictive behaviours, the harder it becomes for our brain to release dopamine, except when we take higher doses of a drug. The same amount of dopamine that was released by say 5 shots of a drug the previous time is now released by taking 10 shots.

So an addict becomes motivated to take the drug again and again in higher quantities to experience the same level of pleasure as the previous time.

This dopamine resistance phenomenon not only happens with drug addiction but with other types of addictive behaviours as well because the neurology of addiction is more or less the same.

One of the reasons why binge eaters and compulsive masturbators can’t seem to get enough and stop their behaviour is because of this decrease in dopamine production.

When their dopamine levels decrease, they find other normal life activities less enjoyable and non-exciting even if they liked doing them before.

In other words, addictive behaviour makes us crave only addictive behaviour and we find everything else boring, dull and colorless, thanks to our brain’s reduced ability to release the neurotransmitter.

It’s never too late

The brain has an amazing capacity to change itself in response to the changes in behaviour that we incorporate in ourselves. Known as neuroplasticity2, the implication for addiction is that addiction is essentially a skill that the brain can unlearn.

The basic idea is this- if we consciously change our behaviour, then our brain structure also changes in a way that supports or promotes that behaviour.

This means that even if you’ve developed significant dopamine resistance due to your past addictive behaviours, you can always recover if choose to.

For some, it may take days and for others, weeks or even months, depending on for how long have they’ve been addicted or their genetic predisposition before the brain reverts back to its normal level dopamine-releasing mechanism.

If you’re an addict and you give up your addictive behaviours now, you’ll already have started on the path of restoring your brain settings back to default and you’ll gradually start enjoying other life activities that you loved before your addiction took over your life.

The longer you hold on to your addiction, the harder will it be for you to recover.

References

  1. Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., & Wang, G. J. (2002). Role of dopamine in drug reinforcement and addiction in humans: results from imaging studies. Behavioural pharmacology13(5-6), 355-366.
  2. Madsen, H., Brown, R., & Lawrence, A. (2012). Neuroplasticity in addiction: cellular and transcriptional perspectives. Frontiers in molecular neuroscience5, 99.