Addiction: A taboo Women need to talk about
When does a bad habit become an addiction?
Addiction is a bit of a taboo topic, isn’t it?
It’s also often wrongfully characterised as something only dangerous or dysfunctional people could suffer from.
That’s because there’s a misperception that addiction is just a form of irresponsible behaviour or for the weak. Turn’s out, there’s a fine line between what is one persons’ bad habit (a bottle of Pinot, 3 nights a week anyone?) and someone else’s addiction.
In 2013, the Centre for Social Justice determined that the level of addiction in the UK made it the “addiction capital of Europe” and the Harvard Medical School report that women develop medical or social consequences of addiction faster than men, often find it harder to quit and are more susceptible to relapse.
I spoke with Louise Baker, an accredited Psychotherapist who specialises in treating addiction, anxiety and depression to find out more…
What is an addiction and what causes it?
My favourite definition of addiction is ‘engagement in self-destructive behaviours, despite adverse consequences’. It’s a broad definition and we are all vulnerable to its effects.
While addiction is most associated with drugs, alcohol and gambling we can become addicted to just about anything – gaming, social media, work, shopping, sex.
There is rarely one cause and the route to addiction is complex with biological, psychological and social-cultural factors all playing a role.
Addiction can occur when some behaviours provide intense activation of the brains’ reward system. When engaging in these, our brains are literally flooded with dopamine, our body’s natural feel-good chemical.
If we begin to rely on substances or certain behaviours to regularly produce this high, our brains naturally provide less. The more we indulge in the behaviour the less dopamine our brains produce – the less dopamine our brain produces the more we seek the high elsewhere. This is the beginning of addiction.
Women are twice as likely to use alcohol or prescription drugs to self-medicate intolerable feelings.
Are some people more prone to having an ‘addictive personality’?
There is no evidence of an “addictive personality’ but certain characteristics may predispose someone to addiction. For example, having a propensity to seek new experiences or being vulnerable to stress or low mood.
Alcohol may give short-term relief from stress or boredom, providing pleasurable sensations and be a way of coping with negative feelings or situations. Having poor coping skills to deal with life’s challenges will increase the risk further.
Social circumstances are also part of the picture with influences including a person’s family, peer group, occupation, community and social connections.
When does a habit become an addiction?
This is where it is important to ask tough, direct questions of yourself in relation to the behaviour. Ask yourself, can you limit the behaviour? Can you have a two-week holiday? If you are unable to cut down then it is likely you are moving towards addiction.
Is it affecting your ability to fulfil other roles and obligations? Have other social or recreational activities reduced? Are you continuing the behaviour despite having persistent problems as a result?
If you are using a substance, be it alcohol or drugs, do you need increasing amounts to get the same effect? Do you experience withdrawal symptoms associated with the substance or is your mind frequently preoccupied with thinking about the substance or behaviour?
Are women more prone to certain types of addiction?
Although rates of substance use tend to be higher in men (worth noting that the gender gap is narrowing), women progress to addiction more quickly and suffer more health consequences.
Women are also twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and use alcohol or prescription drugs to self-medicate intolerable feelings.
What are the biggest addiction concerns in today’s lifestyles?
Smartphone and gaming addictions are the biggest concerns growing in society today.
Game developers use the latest neuroscience to activate the brain’s reward systems and keep customers playing. Lots of money is also made from in-game purchases that provide the dopamine release, just like when we are gambling.
How do we treat it?
Addiction is a treatable condition and complete recovery is possible. Because addiction is so multi-faceted treatment needs to focus on all dimensions of someone’s life – home, family, work as well as emotional and mental health.
Research suggests that cognitive behaviour therapy, group treatment approaches, and the ‘AA/NA’ twelve-step model can all be helpful. Which approach is most beneficial depends on the extent of the addiction and individual preference.
If someone is struggling with addiction or is worried about someone, what should they do?
Visit your local GP who will be able to signpost or refer you to local services or contact one of the organisations below*.
Treatment is available on the NHS and there are also private therapists and hospitals that specialise in addiction. If opting for a private treatment service, ensure they are fully accredited by a relevant professional body and also have qualifications and experience treating addictions.
Louise Barker is an Accredited Psychotherapist who has practised in the mental health field for over 25 years. She has extensive experience and expertise working with children, young people and adults with a range of difficulties including anxiety, depression and addiction. Find out more here
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