How does it all start? My thoughts on addiction causes and substance abuse

I was talking with a friend the other night, and he asked me my opinion about the line between addiction and normal behavior. He was wondering whether I think that everyone who looks at porn is a sex addict.

I don’t. (see some of our posts on sex addiction here)

Still, the conversation made me feel like writing something about my views on addiction causes. So here goes:

For the addicts who are still unaware, the line between normal- and addictive-behavior tends to blur again and again until it seems like more of faded smudge on their life. For those looking at addicts from the outside, the line normally seems so clear and so far away that they rarely believe it can be crossed back again.

I don’t personally believe that addiction per se is where things started for most people. By this I mean that no matter how hard we look, I believe that we will never find the elusive “addiction gene“, genes, or trigger.

Having been in the thick of it, I think that substance abuse is nothing but one possible outcome of set of circumstances, both biological and environmental, that lead some individuals down a particular path.

Impulsivity and other addiction causes

As I mentioned in earlier posts, addiction, at least to drugs (and I believe other addictions as well) is very closely related to a set of psychological conditions that have to do with impulse control problems.

I believe that individuals with increased impulsivity are simply more prone to putting themselves in situations that are inherently dangerous to their well-being. A simple example from non-drug related behavior might be one-night stands.

A typical person with no impulse control issues may hold off on sex if the only option was to have it unprotected. They may think to themselves “I need to stop, this could seriously affect the rest of my life.”

A person who has a reduced ability to control initial impulses may have the exact same thought and yet go through with the action, leaving them feeling remorseful and anxious the next day, but still having put themselves at risk.

This is a very common occurrence among sex-addicts. The thoughts are there, the knowledge is there, the ability to connect those to actions is seriously lacking. While some people make moral judgments about this fact, I’ve seen enough research that connects this problem to biological processes and genetics that I’m now resigned to the fact that at least on some level, the issue is physical and neurochemical.

Addiction help – Cures, treatment, and solutions

Still, I think the battle is far from lost. I strongly believe that education, informed by actual knowledge rather than misguided mythology, can put people in a better position to deal with the issues even if their source is outside of their control.

Even aside from pharmacological treatments (as in medications) that can help, there are endless ways to help people learn to be in better control of their actions once they are aware of their initial deficit. That is how AA and many other support groups function. People within them ask others about decisions they’re making BEFORE they act on them.

We know already that when it comes to drugs, the equation changes once the person starts using regularly and for long periods of time.

Chronic substance abuse further breaks down the brain’s ability to control impulses by reducing functioning specifically in the prefrontal-cortex; the part of the brain right behind your forehead which is thouught to be the center of the brain’s control tower.

The cycle seems too obvious: Impulse control difficulties leading to dangerous behavior which leads to further impulsivity issues and so on…

The treatment, like the progression of the condition itself, needs to be long. I don’t believe that any 30 day treatment program will be able to resolve a condition that took years to develop. Still, the issue of treatment will come up again here. This is enough for now…

Question of the day:
Do you have any insights from your own experiences as to how addiction develops?

8 responses to “How does it all start? My thoughts on addiction causes and substance abuse”

  1. I like the way you leave questions for visitors to your blog to answer.

    My insight is that addictions and compulsive behaviors develop because they work … at least in the short term. I also agree that sex addicts, like all addicts, cross line after line that non-addicts would judge as crazy or bad. That does seem impulsive. But it’s funny how a person can be quite impulsive in one area and not at all impulsive in others. And where does impulse leave off and fatalism set in?

  2. Thanks for the comment gentle,
    If you’re referring to obsessive-compulsive behavior when talking about aspects of life in which people are not impulsive, I would offer this:

    OCD can easily be thought of as an inability of the brain to control impulses that lead to recurring thoughts and actions. While the behavior is different (for instance, washing hands versus having unprotected sex), the underlying inability to have control over instinctual behavior is shared…

  3. What about the addictive properties of so called ‘normal’ behavior? Don’t most normal people constantly seek good and avoid bad? Don’t most people chronically avoid discomfort? Isn’t this why the average person in the US watches something like 5 hours of TV a day? Don’t we chronically react when someone cuts us off in traffic or insults us or tells us to do something? Aren’t we chronically judging, forming opinions and making beliefs about things we can’t really know?

    I would say that ‘normal’ people justify their lives and are in denial in much the same way that addicts do. Maybe the addict is just more extreme.

  4. Brandon, I think that that what you call ‘normal’ behaviors can develop into more compulsive patterns. Yes, everyone seeks good and avoids bad (generally speaking). Still, there’s little doubt, at least in my mind (disagreements welcome) that the vast majority of people in the world do show the same pattern of behavior as addicts do. I’m not saying everyone is acting in their best interest at all times, but there’s a difference between watching 5 hours of t.v. a day and watching t.v. so compulsively that you stop showing up for work, cleaning your house, or talking to your friends and family. The former may be useless and silly, the latter is destructive. I think the same goes for drugs.

    I don’t know that everyone’s action patterns are the same, as you suggest, when cut off, insulted, etc. I think you’re exactly talking about the more impulsive, less controlled patterns of behavior common to many (but certainly not all) addicts.
    .-= Adi Jaffe´s last blog ..How does it all start? My thoughts on addiction causes and substance abuse =-.

  5. Interestingly enough I grew up being taught to make calm, healthy, positive choices for myself. I’m the oldest of a large family, and the stresses of everyday life proved to be too much for my step-Dad, who suffered from PTSD, having served in the Korean War ( purple heart ) lost his only brother in the line of duty ( hi-way patrol officer ), his parents divorced after 25 yrs of marriage, his niece of his only brother addicted to heroine after her mother commited suicide. My step-Dad found marijuana, after driving impaired from alcohol and crashing into a telephone pole, somehow escaping serious injury. Once he was into the regular use of weed, he acquired the friends that went along with, ( not my mother ), and suddenly divorce was the solution. My step-Dad shared his weed with his sons and daughters generously, (hi school graduation was history) but cool sports like surfing, skateboarding, baseball, soccer were staples. One morning ( pay day) my step-Dad lit up a doobie, jumped on his Harley, and attempted to pick up his check, when someone ran a red light, ( before the helmet law ) and sent my step-Dad flying. ( sub-dural hemotoma, TBI ) Needless to say, I do not believe Weed is the solution to life’s problems. I watched my family of very bright, good-looking kids, go from thriving, to drug addicted, and can’t help but draw the correlation. Chrystal Meth, Black Tar Heroine, Weed, Cocaine, cigarettes, and alcohol are the drugs of choice of what is left of my family. As for me, I married a high functioning alcoholic, whos family believes drinking, is fine, as long as you are responsible at work and follow the family traditions. My problem is that the role modeling for my two sons has been blatant alcohol abuse, which has led to drug abuse, and DWI problems. These problems are all being handled, but without real education, it is easy to look at a hi-functioning Dad ( wanting to preserve his image ) and think drinking is okay. It feels like DeJa vu. Thanks for being there.

  6. Good article, but I would point out that “how addiction develops” is distinguished from its’ causes. How points to processes, influences, etc, while causes point to verified data proven to set something in motion. I liked your phrase that addiction is “related to a set of psychological conditions having to do with impulse control.” Well put, Adi!

  7. I think addiction occurs in an environment where something is lacking, or at least there’s a higher chance.

    If you got a loved one, got a good career, and feel fulfilled, even if you try to smoke a joint, you won’t feel the need to keep doing it.

    If you’re in the bottom of the gene pool, don’t have a job, and feel like a loser, well.. if you do the same thing, you’re gonna keep doing it. It’s physical, but the need to do it arises from something lacking in your environment.

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