How come people can get addicted, when there’s no mind-altering substance involved?
Updated: Jul 23
When we talk about addictions, most people think it is about alcohol, drugs, smoking, things like that. These are substance addictions. People, doctors included, used to think that it was the substance abused that was responsible for the disease of addiction. The idea was that somehow some substances that one swallows or inhales or injects in his bloodstream, hi-jack one's metabolism and make the person dependent upon regular doses of the same stuff, and unable to stop the bad behavior that goes with it. This is only partially true. But there are some behaviors or processes, things people repeatedly do, that can produce very similar consequences to those that the drugs or alcohol do. People can become addicted to gambling, videogames, dieting or overeating, some sexual behaviors including watching pornography, shopping and compulsive debting, overworking, and they can also lose control of their relationships and become overly dependent to the relationships with abusive or addicted partners.
So, how can it be, that you can become addicted, when there’s no drug involved?
Well, first we have to understand what addiction really is. It is not just bad habit or behavior; people can decide to stop their behaviors or change their habits anytime, perhaps with some struggle, but they can do it, whereas they cannot stop their using or gambling, at least not permanently, without experiencing a very bad withdrawal reaction. They know it’s bad, they want to stop, they make serious decisions and promises, but they cannot stick to them. There is something wrong with their ability to stop, with their decision making, with their ability to choose behavior. That’s why we know that addiction is a disease.
It is a disease, affecting one’s behavior, but where do our behaviors generate? In the brain! It has been only in recent years that research has proved that long term repetition of certain behaviors can become so engraved in our brain circuits that they may be permanently changed, and that is it what makes of a behavior a disease. Whereas we are talking about getting drunk, high on drugs, or staying absorbed in gambling or a videogame for too long or staying in toxic relationships at the cost of your health, it’s all the same thing. It is not about the behavior as much as the impaired ability to control and stop it.
To understand how playing a videogame can have the same effect as getting drunk or high, we must understand something about the brain. It is made of complex wiring, arranged in the so-called pathways that conduct impulses. The wiring is made of nerve cells that communicate with each other in very complex in different ways, by sending and receiving microscopic bubbles of chemicals. These chemicals are very similar to the known drugs, or sometimes our bodily metabolism can turn them into such substances. So, each person, adult or child, addicted or not, has within their brains a potential drug dealer! When we behave in certain ways, we stimulate the brain to make such chemicals, and if we do it repeatedly over a long period of time, our brain can learn to do it so well that the effect is similar to the injected, inhaled or ingested drug. It’s the behaviors that change jour moods that can do it. You have probably noticed that after playing a videogame or gambling for hours, you feel different, not quite in contact with your surroundings, detached from the problems you have in daily life. Such behaviors are used to escape reality and improve the mood, but if the source of trouble was chronic, they do not make the problems go away, they just numb the feelings about it. That is what can be dangerous, leading from use to abuse, and in the end, to addiction.
To learn more about addiction watch my video Addictions 101 and subscribe to my Youtube channel.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.