Understanding the Psychology of Addiction

The Psychology of Addiction - Freedom From Addiction
“Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. ‘Damn it Otto; you are an alcoholic.’ ‘Damn it, Otto; you have Lupus’… one of those two doesn’t sound right.”

– Mitch Hedberg (Comedian)

Mitch Hedberg made light of his troubles with addiction, as many comedians do when they draw from real life. However, in light of new science, he might have been onto something. According to Maia Szalavitz, author of “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction,” addiction is more akin to ADHD and other learning disorders, rather than a degenerative disease that slowly circles the drain – leaving little to no hope for addicts in recovery.

The New Science

Szalavitz proposes that addiction is more closely linked to our basic survival instinct. The two parts of the brain that are activated by addiction response are a part of the midbrain that controls your pleasure and motivation and your prefrontal cortex which is part of your decision making and goal setting. These two parts of the brain help us do two things: reproduce and survive.

When these parts of the brain are turned towards the wrong goals, such as other substances rather than food and sex, this is when addiction occurs. However, because of these new studies, we may have been treating addiction all wrong.

Addiction as a Mental Illness

Addiction has always gone hand in hand with a mental illness, with something called a dual-diagnosis. However, it could very well be its mental health diagnosis, instead of dual-diagnosis of a psychotic disorder with a side of addiction.

When addiction suddenly becomes its very own diagnosis, terms like “self-medicating,” about addiction, make more sense. The substance you are abusing is filling a neurological gap that you have. Much like someone with anxiety taking a prescribed rescue medication when they feel their nerves getting out of hand. Perhaps dual-diagnosis is now a misnomer, and rather we should just think of it as a symptom of a greater mental health issue.

Positive Over Negative

In light of all these findings, it is no surprise that Szalavitz found that negative reinforcements like interventions and incarcerations had little to no effect on a person overcoming their addiction. She even hypothesizes that just the sheer act of maturation does more for addiction recovery than anything.

We are at greater risk for addiction in our teens and early 20s, while your brain isn’t finished maturing until around age 25 or later. Szalavitz makes a case that the more mature you become, the more biologically capable you are of overcoming your addiction.

What Now?

Perhaps this is a new way to approach those with addictions. As the quote earlier implies, we don’t ask people to apologize for something they are diagnosed with that they have no control over, so why do we need to apologize for having an addictive illness instead.

Unfortunately, part of most 12-step programs still has a step for making amends – apologizing. Maybe someday we will be able to look more kindly on someone with an addiction, who simply has some misfiring neurons in their brain, the same as someone who is bipolar. Even more so, perhaps with this new information, we will find other medical means of treating it as with any other mental illness.

Connecting with the right treatment solution to achieve recovery is essential in this process. A free service like Freedom From Addiction can be of help to explore the different treatment options available. For 24/7 assistance, call our toll-free hotline at 1.855.RECOVER or 1.855.732.6837.


Sydney DeZinno is a writer from Tucson, AZ. A graduate of the University of Arizona, she an active advocate that is passionate about addiction recovery and helping those in crisis. 

| Twitter @sdezinno

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