What is addiction?

Early in my career as an addiction hypnotherapist, I was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of a respected addiction hypnotherapist, author and personal friend, Hugh Osborne. Hugh also runs workshops teaching other hypnotherapists his approaches and techniques. In his workshops, he would regularly ask his students the question ‘what is addiction?’ I don’t think I ever heard the same answer twice. Whether the students had experienced and overcome addiction themselves, or whether they were answering as a result of their learnings as therapists, they all seemed to answer from their own perspective. None of the answers were wrong, and most of them explained the exact same thing, only in different tones. Either way, they all taught me just how personal the experience is.

This is probably why, other than the obvious: ‘doing something that has a detrimental effect on your life, but still not being able to stop’, there are so many other different explanations to what addiction is. Explanations range from neurological, psychological, physiological, developmental, and even spiritual.

In this article, I want to cover a mixture.

I will give you four quotes and explanations by experts who I respect and have followed myself, through my own recovery, to my work as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist. You might relate to some of these explanations more than others. This does not mean that any of them are wrong, or that any one quote or explanation explains addiction as a whole. It really just depends on where you are looking at it from. I believe that there is something to learn from each explanation.  

Disease Of Choice – “addiction is a disorder of the very parts of the brain, we need, to make proper decisions.” Dr Kevin McCauley

During his own recovery, Dr McCauley kept being told by his councillors that addiction was a disease and that he had it! As a physician, he was sceptical. A disease, for Dr McCauley, was diabetes, cancer, or Parkinson’s. Illnesses that befall their victims through no fault of their own. At the time he believed that addiction is behavioural. All behaviours are choices, hence, addiction is a choice. Meaning, it was his own fault. But then again, if it was a choice, why couldn’t he just stop doing it? This question set Dr McCauley on a 10-year journey that would answer this question.

Artificial intoxicants (or intoxicating behaviours) make physical changes to our brain. Our reward circuitry becomes rewired. Dopamine plays a large role in this. Surges of dopamine tell our brains when we do something extra pleasurable. We experience naturally high surges through eating, love or when we have sex. The huge surges of dopamine our brains experience through intoxicants and addictive behaviours are much, much greater. Eventually, these huge surges of dopamine fool the brain into thinking that those intoxicants have survival value. Over time, the more you do those artificial stimulants, the higher their survival priority goes up, eventually becoming survival and even overtaking sex, love, and food in priority.

Once your brain grades something as important for survival, it becomes a must-have. The reasoning and decision making part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) has any say revoked by the “primitive brain” (limbic system). The primitive brain is much stronger than the prefrontal cortex, it does not think or reason, and is all about survival. No matter how much damage the addiction is having on your personal life, pocket, marriage, self-esteem, and even health, it will still be wanted.

When we try to resist an urge to act out, our brains turn up the intensity of cravings. Amongst other things, your brain will lower your serotonin levels to create a stressful environment within your mind and body. It does this to motivate you, even more, to do the thing that it believes eases that stress (your substance or behaviour).

Whether addiction begins as a disease or through the wrong choices, it eventually becomes a disease of choice.

A normal reaction to abnormal circumstances – Dr Gabor Mate “not all people who have experienced childhood trauma become addicts, but all addicts have experienced some sort of childhood trauma”.

Dr Gabor Mate is a physician, an author, and the worlds leading expert on addiction. Dr Mate tells us that addiction stems from untreated, or unprocessed childhood trauma. Intoxicants become a way to numb, self-medicate, or divert attention away from pain. He explains that even people who have not become addicts as a result of childhood trauma, still display signs of the trauma through other characteristics, e.g. unhealthy relationships, people-pleasing, etc.

When we hear the words childhood trauma, our minds automatically go to physical and sexual abuse. Although this is the sad reality for many addicts, it’s not always the case. With today’s understanding of the human brain and human development, childhood trauma has become a much wider spectrum.

Childhood neglect, for example, might bring to mind visions of young children being left unfed, dirty, or alone. In his book ‘in the realm of hungry ghosts’ Dr Mate tells us of research that shows babies recognising when their parents are interested in them by the dilation of their pupils. A toddler does not understand its parent’s words, what it does understand is the parent’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and when the parent’s pupils dilate as a result of their interaction. When the toddler perceives love and interest from the parent in these ways, the toddler’s brain (and dopamine receptors) will develop healthily. If the toddler doesn’t perceive love and interest from the parent, they will not form properly. This is also a form of neglect and a form of childhood trauma. This form of trauma and so many others are often unintentional on the part of our parents. Young children do not understand when parents are in jobs that demand a lot from them, or when parents have problems of their own. They take things personally.

“Addiction is an implosion of creativity looking for an outlet” – Hugh Osbourne

Creativity is a loud internal noise that can cave in on itself unless expressed. It’s a calling for people with a unique outlook on life, to share something special. For creative people, not being able to express their creativity is like turning their backs on a higher calling. Seeing these amazing people fall victim to addiction is a tragedy. It’s like seeing a budding athlete give up their sporting career in favour of a sporting computer game. Most of us want to achieve something in life, we might even have the ability and the motivation. When we lack the idea, the resources, or the support, what do we do with all of that creative energy? It needs an outlet, doesn’t it? We become frustrated and can find our outlet in artificial (and instant) stimulants instead. The creative process is a very rewarding one but so are intoxicants. The rewards on the brain from intoxicants are very similar to creativity, but with less effort. When I finally found my creative process, I was still struggling with addiction. It was one day when I had a project to complete when a craving and an opportunity presented itself for me to act on my addiction when a voice in my head said “listen, you know there is no room for both. You are either going to be a drug addict or you are going to follow this creative passion. Make your choice right now”. I made my choice and am here today expressing some of that creativity in this article”.

Addiction is a futile attempt from an individual to stop their own transformation – Tommy Rosen

I speak to so many people who have ideas and goals that they turn their backs on as a result of false beliefs that they are not good enough to reach them. The shame of not being good enough puts them into a “fuck it” mentality and instead, they fall into the trap of self-persecution through addiction. This saddens me because I believe that we’re all able of accomplishing most of the things we want.

I was once speaking with a housewife who studied to become a doctor at the age of 50. She didn’t do it to go career, she did it just because her husband, daughter, and son were all doctors and she wanted to understand and be able to get involved in their discussions. Look at this mentality. It’s an inspiration! Yes, she was from good stock and yes she had the resources to go and study medicine but that’s not the point. The point is, she didn’t have that discouraging voice of addiction telling her she’s not good enough. She probably never has. Today I speak with bright and charismatic teenagers who don’t pursue their dreams because they believe they don’t have the intelligence to reach them. Instead, they become addicted to computer games and cannabis.

In most cases, these false beliefs are actually a direct result of the addiction. addiction is a cunning and manipulative survivor and will use our deepest darkest fears against us for its own survival. It will lead us to believe these lies about ourselves so that we rationalise and justify our addiction. This is the psychological realm of the physical disorder in our decision making. The reality is, you will never be good enough until you become good enough. You cannot be intelligent enough to do something until you educate yourself about that thing. I have a personal friend who had this problem for years. He didn’t believe he could accomplish things because he was dyslexic, and he persecuted himself for it through addiction. Finally, due to the financial responsibility of having four children, do you know what he did? He got so desperate that he had to put those beliefs aside and he went and studied to became a qualified electrician. He almost quit the moment he opened the first page of his study book because he didn’t understand a word of what he was looking at. It might as well have been written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics! This time though, he couldn’t turn back. So he read. He put in the work, and he understood each page, one at a time.

There are more explanations and quotes that I wish I could have included in this article, but there’s only so much you can put into a single article. If you made it this far and would like more, then maybe you could let me know, and I’ll work on, part two.

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this article as much I did writing it.

If you have something you would like to add or discuss with me, then please do not hesitate to get in touch.