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The Psychology of Addictive Behavior Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2021

This thesis concerns addiction and its effect on and interaction with human behavior. To study this subject we must first define and understand what is meant by the word: “addiction.” This report will discuss the combination of genetic, environmental, and social causes of addiction. We will also explore different treatments for both genetic and social addictions. Past studies have clearly illustrated the condition of addiction is a collaboration of social, psychological, and physiological factors.

The human race struggles with many different forms of addictions. According to social scientists, human beings can become addicted to any activity which gives them pleasure. Among the most common psychological addictions are gambling, drinking, sex, shopping, and playing video games. Physical addictions include smoking, drug use, and alcohol abuse. Researchers have found that there are common characteristics to all types of addictions that trigger the release of endorphins in the brain.

All of the addictions are characterized by obsessive behavior. The addicted individual thinks about the addictive behavior or substance constantly. Their attraction to the addictive object or behavior is obsessive and uncontrollable. The lack of control is what creates the frightening reality of addiction. The addict has no control over their behavior. This lack of self-control is a dangerous situation to find oneself in, taken over by an object, substance, or activity.

Some addictions are labeled as “diseases”. This is because of the debilitating effect the activity has on society and the individual. An addiction such as alcoholism is labeled a disease because excessive drinking leads to negative personal and social consequences such as drunk driving and domestic violence. These social problems hurt society by causing deaths on the highway and broken families. Or the other consequence for the addicted individual may be death from cirrhosis of the liver or mouth cancer or some other alcohol-related disorder. Addiction to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin wreak similar havoc on society and the individual.

Excessive gambling is also considered a disease but gambling has less of an effect on society and more of an individual effect. Some compulsive gamblers will commit robbery or other crimes to finance their addiction.

Addictions have caused countless problems to families over the years. Social scientists have struggled to understand and control addiction by using the chemical as well as therapeutic counseling remedies to control them. Addictions cost millions of dollars each year in health care costs. They break up families and take the lives of their victims daily. The struggle to cure addictions will continue endlessly. This report will concentrate on the factors of addictions that cause serious harm to society.

What is Addiction?

What is addiction? Encarta Dictionary defines drug addiction as a state of physiological or psychological dependence on a potentially harmful drug. (15)

Webster’s Dictionary online defines it as a noun created in 1599

1: the quality or state of being addicted 2: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful. (14)

Commonly, the word is used to describe a compulsive habit related to substances or behaviors. In recent times it has been expanded to include compulsive behaviors as well as substance abuse.

Addiction can be either physical or psychological or both. Physical addiction is the uncontrollable use of a substance or drug. Psychological addiction involves behaviors. Either type of addiction consists of an individual trying to fill a hole or deficit inside themselves with a substance or activity. People who suffer from addiction have lost track of themselves, do not know who they are and they are seeking satisfaction from a source outside of themselves. Self-satisfaction has to come from within. Generally, addictive behavior is triggered by internal feelings of inadequacy.

Sometimes addiction has a genetic cause. Genetics can be an important factor in acquiring susceptibility to addiction. Susceptibility, however, does not men inevitability. In the research of Genetics and addiction, the analysis of molecular biology has led to findings that the physical aspects of carrying genes and the functions such as “cellular metabolism: or Cellular signaling, the pattern of gene expression is related to both cellular function and behavioral functions in the whole organism. The behavior of individuals with particular genotypes can only be assessed in a manipulated environment that clearly affects the behavioral outcome. (Fry ET al.1998)(4)

It is obviously difficult to conduct such studies on humans so mice were used in a controlled environment. In exploring the gene/environment interaction, both genotype and environment were manipulated experimentally. (7) The animal studies revealed genetic differences in sensitivity to drug conditioned responses. The research compared the different genetic strains for alcohol abuse, drug sensitivity, tolerance, dependence, the severity of withdrawal, and the tendency to self-medicate. (11) The advantage of working with an inbred strain is that the genotypes remained stable over time allowing for a true comparison of the external factors. The studies showed mouse strains that preferred alcohol tend to be those with minimal withdrawal severity.

How Does Addiction Work? What are the Causes?

It is known that social environment, as well as genetic predisposition, can influence susceptibility to addiction. For example, a person living in an environment where drug use is common is more likely to use drugs than an individual who has to seek them out. However, a truly addicted person will go to any length to obtain the object of their addiction.

It may be more difficult for people with certain genetic characteristics to abstain from drugs once they are introduced to drugs. “Addictive genes” is a term that refers to the biological differences in genes that may make an individual more or less prone to addiction. Certain genes cause the addict to experience euphoria from drug use and/or very severe withdrawal when they attempt to stop using the addictive substance. Genetic predisposition does not doom an individual to addiction but it can cause more of an attraction to certain behaviors.

Previous research has found that there is not one single addictive gene; it is assumed that the susceptibility to addiction is the result of many different genes interacting. Similarly, it is widely known that environmental and social factors also contribute to the attraction to addiction thus making the condition a very complex situation.

For many years, social scientists have noted the gene for alcoholism is often present in family members but it is not necessarily present in all family members.

To better understand the composition of drug-addicted conditions, consideration must be given to the aspects of drug responses:

  • The susceptibility of a person to initiation of drug use.
  • The neuro-adaption which occurs related to tolerance or sensitivity to the drug
  • The level of dependence illustrated during withdrawal from the drug
  • The reinforcing effects of the drugs, which may be positive or negative and are characterized by cravings.
  • The efficiency of the body in elimination of the drug from the system

The Different Types of Addiction

Psychological addiction occurs when an individual believes that he needs the drug or activity to survive. Physical addiction occurs when a person’s mind and body change to the point that they need the drug or activity to function normally.

The reward for addictive behavior for the addict is the release of dopamine, which is a chemical messenger which sends the sensation of pleasure to the brain. One study of the addiction of Vietnam veterans involved a substantial number of heroin users. Only a small percentage of the study subjects became addicted. The conclusion was that genetic factors heavily influenced the subjects’ vulnerability to addiction. Dr. Collier’s research also concluded there is a strong genetic link between thrill-seeking, adrenaline junkies, and addictive personalities. They are all seeking the rush of dopamine to the brain.

Dopamine causes a sensation of pleasure. All forms of addiction have this quest for dopamine as the root cause of the behavior. Similarly addictive behaviors such as risky sexual behavior, gambling, and compulsive shopping send the same rush of dopamine to the brain. Addictive behaviors have this in common. The addicts usually have a feeling of unhappiness or dissatisfaction at the root of their behavior. The addiction to smoking, however, can be both physical and psychological. The smoker becomes accustomed to smoking while engaging in certain activities such as driving or drinking coffee. The activity then triggers a craving for the cigarette. The physical craving for nicotine is also very strong. It is the combination that keeps rational people smoking when they know it is harmful.

In the 19th century, scientists believed that addiction, especially to heroin, as a result of a “power grab” by physicians. Today we understand that addiction is a disease of the brain characterized by fundamental and long-lasting changes in the brain. The brain chemistry is altered by the drug or the activity. Drugs fall into different categories: stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, narcotics, cannabinoids, inhalants, and steroids. All affect the body differently.

Cures for Addiction

Addiction is a real condition. Only the addict truly understands the intense need to satisfy their craving. The changes in the brain of the addict persist long after the addict discontinues drug use or the activity. Because of these changes, addicts can and often do relapse. Treatments for addictive behavior are improving as studies in this field advance. Drug addiction often follows a cycle. When the brain changes, it tells the neurotransmitters to slow down the release of certain chemicals. When that occurs, the person takes more of the drug in order to feel the dopamine rush. The addict builds up more and more tolerance for the drug, and increases use.

The positive aspect of addiction is that many programs target addictive behavior. There is drug therapy as well as counseling available through medical programs, community-based programs, and churches. Many communities offer Twelve Step programs for alcohol and drug addiction. There are Twelve Step programs for other addictions as well.

The very first step toward a cure is getting the addict to admit to the addiction and recognize the need for a cure. Sometimes this step is the most difficult.

The goal of treatment is to entice the addict to reduce and finally eliminate the destructive behaviors. Detox has to be a part of any substance treatment. There are drugs such as Antabuse or Campral which make alcohol use physically uncomfortable. While the chemical approach has its advantages, the overwhelming cause of addiction is internal or psychological and that is the most important aspect of the problem that has to be addressed to cure addiction. A strictly chemical cure will not last.

The question for society is why does addiction exist? Is it simply a question of willpower or are addicts just morally inept and lacking in scruples? The conclusion reached by social scientists is that addicts are searching for something missing from their lives. Genetics plays a part as well as psychological and environmental factors. There is no doubt that certain genes are inherited which predisposes persons to addictive behavior. However, it is a mistake to conclude that genetics alone determine the propensity for addiction because many times in families, one member will be afflicted when others are not. The complexity of addiction is very intricate.

The following facts can be summarized:

  1. Being born to alcoholic parents does not mean you will also be an alcoholic.
  2. Past studies indicated a significant increase in the incidence of alcoholism in the children of alcoholics. Father-to-son transmission is particularly common.
  3. Addiction is not caused by a lack of willpower as much as it is determined by genetics
  4. Environmental factors are also a key factor in determining whether or not addiction occurs.

Recent studies show that addiction to drugs such as heroin is also caused by a genetic predisposition similar to alcohol. With counseling, support groups, and different drug therapy regimens, addictions can be cured in those who truly seek a cure. There are many holistic methods of treating addiction: acupuncture, hypnosis, herbal therapy, massage, Hatha Yoga, and nutrition therapy. Conventional treatment is psychotherapy which is implemented by encouraging the addict to talk more openly about the personal experiences causing anxiety. The patient must become capable of managing daily problems without turning to drugs for solace.

The problematic behavior must be identified and prevented by managing high-risk situations which may trigger a relapse. Different stages and types of addiction respond to different treatments. There are many treatments to try. Human Beings are imperfect; life is difficult and they will continue to struggle with addictions. The addict has to want to be cured. Progress continues in resolving this long-standing societal issue.

Works Cited

  1. 2007 The University of Utah, Genetic Science Learning Center 15 North 2030 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-5330, (801) 585-3470 Disclaimer v3.1.
  2. John C. Crabbe, Portland Alcohol Research Center, Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon Health & Science University, and VA Medical Center, Portland, Oregon;
  3. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2002. 53:435-462. Downloaded from arjournals.annualreviews.org by University of Stirling on 11/03/05. For personal use only.
  4. Genetics and Addiction, Belknap JK, Danielson PW, Lam´eM, Crabbe JC. 1988. Ethanol and barbiturate withdrawal convulsions are extensively codetermined in mice. Alcohol 5:167–71.
  5. Belknap JK, Haltli NR, Goebel DM, Lam´eM. 1983. Selective breeding for high and low levels of opiate-induced analgesia in mice. Behav. Genet. 13:383–96.
  6. Belknap JK, Hitzemann R, Crabbe JC, Phillips TJ, Buck KJ, WilliamsRW. 2001.QTLanalysis and genome-wide mutagenesis in mice: complementary genetic approaches to the dissection of complex traits. Behav. Genet. 31:5–15.
  7. Crabbe JC. 1996. A genetic animal model of alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol: Clin. Exp. Res. 20:96A–100A Crabbe JC. 1999. Molecular genetics of addiction. See Charney et al. pp. 591–600.
  8. Pickens RW, Svikis DS, McGue M, LaBuda MC. 1995. Common genetic mechanisms in alcohol, drug, and mental disorder comorbidity.
  9. Drug Alcohol Depend. 39:129–38 Pickens RW, Svikis DS, McGue M, Lykken DT, Heston LL, Clayton PJ. 1991. Heterogeneity in the inheritance of alcoholism. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 48:19–28.
  10. Psychobiological Factors in Health,Emotions, Morbidity, and Mortality: New Perspectives from Psychoneuroimmunology, Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Lynanne McGuire, Theodore F. Robles, and Ronald Glaser 83.
  11. Crawley et al. 1997, Marks et al. 1989, Stitzel et al. 2000, Seale et al. 1984; for reviews, Crabbe & Harris 1991, Mogilet al. 1996).
  12. (Broadbent et al. 1996, Cunningham 1995, Cunningham et al. 2000, Risinger & Cunningham 1998).
  13. Hurley, Jennifer, Addiction, Opposing Viewpoints, Greenhaven Press, San Diego, CA. 2000.
  14. Dictionary. Web.
  15. Encarta. Web.
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