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  • Unveiling the Depths of Addiction: Understanding, Overcoming, and Reducing the Risk

    In 2021, 46 million Americans met the DSM-5 criteria for a Substance Use Disorder. That’s sixteen percent of the population falling prey to a force capable of ruining mental health, making one feel paranoid and anxious, and presenting extreme challenges when one attempts to quit. That’s countless more family members, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances impacted by the ripple effects of addiction, which can devastate interpersonal relationships. The problem of addiction supersedes the bounds of age, race, gender, and country. Nobody is immune. 

    Fortunately, with effort and support, anybody facing an addiction of any variety can achieve remission, and there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of developing an addiction in the future. 

    But before we get into that, you may be wondering “What is an addiction?” Put simply, someone has an addiction whenever they engage in a behavior or substance that makes them want to continue that behavior or substance in spite of the detrimental effects that behavior or substance may cause. These substances or behaviors have a way of ensnaring individuals and making addicts feel helpless in terms of overcoming their addictions. 

    The diagnostic criteria for addictions vary depending on the severity of the addiction. Individuals facing mild addictions exhibit 2-3 symptoms associated with addiction, whereas those with severe addictions experience more than 5 symptoms. There are a number of symptoms, but the heart of addiction is the recurrent use of a substance or behavior regardless of harmful consequences. 

    One symptom of addiction is the consistent and excessive consumption of a substance, often surpassing the recommended amounts. Individuals grappling with addiction also face intense cravings for the substance or behavior they are addicted to. This craving becomes more potent over time due to the development of tolerance, requiring larger quantities of the substance to achieve the desired effect. Despite their efforts to quit, addicts often feel trapped and unable to break free from the grip of their addiction. Moreover, if they try to abstain from the substance, they may encounter withdrawal symptoms characterized by intense cravings, along with physiological manifestations such as headaches, sweating, fatigue, and nausea. These physical symptoms, combined with heightened irritability, anxiety, and paranoia, further amplify the sense of helplessness experienced during withdrawal.

    The consequences of addiction extend beyond the individual’s personal well-being. Addictions can infiltrate various aspects of a person’s life, interfering with hobbies, relationships, and responsibilities such as work or education. To satisfy their cravings, individuals may engage in risky behaviors, resorting to using unsanitary needles or obtaining substances from untrustworthy sources, putting their health and safety at risk. The all-consuming nature of addiction leaves individuals feeling powerless as they prioritize their cravings above all else, disrupting the stability of their lives. 

    Addictions can take many forms. As you may have guessed from the language throughout this post, there are two types of addictions: addictions to substances (Substance Use Disorder), and addictions to behaviors. Official Substance Use Disorders include addictions to alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, sedatives, stimulants, and tobacco. Substance addictions that weren’t listed fall under the umbrella of Other Substance Use Disorders. An individual can also be addicted to behaviors. Behavioral addictions are often symptomatically similar to substance addictions. Gambling addiction is the only behavioral addiction mentioned in the DSM-5, but psychologists have recognized several other behavioral addictions. They include internet/social media use, video games, sex, and pornography. 

    There are many misconceptions and stigmas surrounding addictions. When psychologists began studying addictions, they thought addictions were caused by a lack of moral strength or willpower. We now know that addictive substances and behaviors alter brain chemistry in a way that makes them incredibly difficult to quit. These substances and behaviors flood the brain with dopamine, a chemical messenger responsible for feelings of pleasure, which reinforces cravings for these harmful substances and activities. As someone gets deeper into their addiction, the repeat use of substances or behaviors will impact synapses in the prefrontal cortex, focusing the brain’s attention toward engaging in the unhealthy substance or behavior. 

    We cannot predict who will fall victim to an addiction. A plethora of factors may make a person more or less susceptible to getting an addiction. These factors could be biological in nature. Twin studies have suggested that around half of the susceptibility to addictions can be attributed to genetic factors. Other research suggests that if one relative has a pattern of addictive behavior, the other family members have increased vulnerability to addictions. One’s gender can also make them more susceptible to developing an addiction, as men are more likely to develop Substance Use Disorders than women. 

    Environmental factors also can also make someone more susceptible to developing an addiction. Accessibility to substances, one’s family life, peer group, employment status, and trauma can all impact a person’s risk of addiction. Mental health conditions that tend to be comorbidities of addictions include Depression, Anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Personality traits such as higher impulsivity and sensation-seeking behavior can increase one’s likelihood of getting an addiction. Overall there are a number of factors outside a person’s control, that can lead them to developing an addiction. 

    With this in mind, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing an addiction. Preventing the use of drugs and alcohol at a young age is crucial, as young people tend to be more susceptible to developing addictions. Also try not to indulge in addictive substances or behaviors while in a transitional period, such as a divorce or job loss. 

    The road to recovery for addicts is often long and treacherous. Relapse is very common– between 40 and 60 percent of people in treatment relapse within a year. Dealing with withdrawal symptoms can be tough, as psychological symptoms such as anxiety may last for weeks if not months. If you are currently dealing with an addiction, the most important thing may be building a support network. This can include family and friends, who can offer encouragement and accountability. You should also consider seeking out therapy, and possibly medical professionals to address your addiction.