Addiction: description, characteristics and causes

According to Van Dale, “addicted” means ‘not being able to break free from a habit’. An addiction disorder is a pattern of inadequate use of certain substances and resulting (social) behavior. Substances can mean different things: drink and drugs, but also smoking, medicines, gaming and perhaps nowadays also Facebook and/or the internet (just try to get rid of that). When do you go from experimenting to addiction? What are the characteristics of an addiction? And what are the causes of addiction?

From experiment to addiction

Everyone tries something sometimes. A glass of wine, a drag on a cigarette or joint, a soft drug. Many people sometimes experiment with a certain drug. During the experimental phase or occasional use, users get a good, sometimes even euphoric feeling from the drug. It makes you happy. In this phase there is a sense of control; you have the idea that you can stop whenever you want, when you want and for as long as you want. This may result in regular use . Here, the use of the drug becomes more of a habit and obtaining and using the drug becomes increasingly important. Denial plays a major role in this phase. People think they still have control, but they also hide the negative consequences for their loved ones. As regular use increases, values may change. What used to be important, such as work and/or family, diminishes in relation to obtaining and using the drug. Lying and cheating can play an increasingly important role in this. Tolerance to the drug often develops here, meaning that you need more and more of the drug to feel the same effects as those experienced in the experimental phase. Eventually the bubble bursts and many (or all) lies come true: missing days at work, stealing from relatives, missing important family events (think of a child’s birthday, for example). Family relationships also come under pressure. There is talk of addiction or dependence . Here too, obtaining and using the drug is very important, but the person feels that he or she can no longer resist the drug at all. They use it to (continue to) experience the positive effects or to avoid the consequences of abstinence. Other things (values) are no longer important; everything for the means.

Characteristics of an addiction

addiction is a pattern of repeated use that has harmful consequences when combined with physiological dependence . This can take the form of failing to fulfill important responsibilities, endangering oneself by combining activities with use (such as alcohol and driving), problems with authorities as a result of use (e.g. arrests), or recurring social or interpersonal problems. The point is that functioning is hindered in daily affairs .

Dependence on the drug can develop over time. A distinction is made between physiological (physical) dependence and psychological dependence. With physiological dependence, the body is dependent on the supply of the substance because it has previously been used with great regularity. The body can no longer function properly without the supply of the substance. With some addictions, such as gaming, you may wonder whether physiological dependence exists. Opinions are divided on this. Psychological dependence involves compulsive use of the substance to meet a psychological need. For example, you can use marijuana to reduce stress. By definition, there does not have to be physiological dependence to be psychologically dependent. According to the DSM, the diagonistic features of substance dependence are:

Diagnostic features according to the DSM*

Tolerance to the substance, evidenced by:

  • The need for increasingly larger amounts of the substance/drug to obtain the desired effect or intoxication
  • Noticeable decrease in effects when the same amount is used

Withdrawal symptoms, evidenced by:

  • The withdrawal disease considered characteristic of the drug, or
  • The use of the same drug (or closely related drug) to reduce or prevent withdrawal symptoms

Using larger amounts of the drug or using it for longer periods of time than the person intended

Persistent desire to reduce or control substance use or lack of success in attempts at self-control

As a result of the use, the person concerned no longer or hardly participates in important social, occupational or recreational activities – the daily routine is affected

Use continues despite evidence of persistent or recurring psychological or physical problems caused or exacerbated by use

*The characteristics do not all have to be present at the same time for a diagnosis.

Causes of addiction

Why would someone want to use certain substances? A possible explanation here would be experimenting or living life to the fullest. However, this does not explain why someone uses substances so much and for so long that it affects and perhaps ruins their daily life.

From a biological perspective, it is thought that long-term use can cause the brain itself to have increasing difficulty in producing dopamine (the pleasure chemical) and endorphins (the pain-relieving chemical), so that these must be increasingly replaced by the drug. Another biological explanation is that there is a certain susceptibility to addiction in the genes and how various neurotransmitters function.

From a learning perspective, it is viewed differently. From conditioning, it is thought that an addiction arises through trial-and-error (trying) and through model learning (watching others). If the drug feels good and friends encourage it, this can lay the foundation for dependence. In terms of operant conditioning, relief from unpleasant withdrawal symptoms is negative reinforcement (keeping away from consequences) to resume drug use, for example keeping away negative feelings. Drug cravings are explained by classical conditioning: aspects associated with the drug trigger a craving.

The cognitive perspective explains the onset of use more. In particular, one’s own effectiveness expectations (see, for example, Theory of Planned Behavior) can be increased: having a drink loosens me up. The drink makes you think you are more social. Expectations can also play a role in, for example, the decision to use a certain drug. Positive attitudes towards substances are also an important influencer of whether or not to use substances.

From a socio-cultural perspective, addiction is thought to be partly determined by place of residence, religion and by social and cultural norms that regulate our behavior. Media can play a role in this. You can think of idealizing drinking in certain films or in social media.

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