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  • Writer's pictureTracy McGimpsey

Understanding Addiction

Blog entries are for information only. They are not a form of therapy or a replacement for therapy.


A person who has developed an addiction is not a bad person. Often, They're a person who has experienced bad things and are doing their best to cope.


Addiction is a complex disorder which can make understanding addiction difficult. It's unlikely that someone with an addiction issue can "just stop" though that's often what they hear from people in their lives.


Imagine being lost at sea and desperately thirsty. You know you shouldn't drink the seawater because it'll only make you thirstier. But you're desperate and it's right there. Part of you is thinking it'll quench your thirst and you'll feel better even though you know the risks. As you become thirstier, that part will grow louder and louder and the urge to give in stronger. Even though you know it's not safe, you may give in and drink the seawater.


Addictions often develop as a coping tool for issues such as (but not limited to) trauma, neglect, adverse childhood experiences, self-esteem issues, financial issues, health concerns, relationship issues, boundary issues, etc. The addictive substance or behaviour serves as a maladaptive coping tool as it's a way to escape, find relief, feel good and so on even if for a brief period. However, it then makes things worse for the person because it doesn't change whatever it was they turned to the substance/behaviour to cope with and it adds additional issues like relationship issues, financial issues, health issues, issues with work, or legal issues.


The more the person uses the substance/behaviour to cope, the worse the addiction becomes.


When a person develops a substance use or process addiction, they often develop both a physical/medical addiction and psychological addiction to that substance or activity (eg. gambling, shopping, exercise, etc.)


Physical/medical addiction is what people commonly think of when they think of addiction. It is a dependence on the substance or behaviour. For instance, when they think of someone who has an addiction to alcohol, they often think of someone who uses every day, who’s struggling to keep their life together, who’s missing work or making big mistakes at work, missing bills, and experiences intense withdrawal when they try to stop using.


Physical addiction occurs as the brain and body adapt to the substance/behaviour and come to depend on it or need it to function properly. Excessive and/or chronic use of a substance/behaviour causes physical changes to occur in the brain. When the person doesn’t use the substance or engage in the behaviour, they experience withdrawal which may vary in presentation and duration based on several factors.

Psychological addiction is different from physical addiction. Psychological addiction is the thoughts, cravings, urges, etc. about or for the substance/behaviour. For example, thinking about using the substance on the weekend, desire to engage in the behaviour or use when feeling high emotions (eg. excitement, pride, fear, anxiety, stress, etc), feeling off or like something is missing when you don’t use the substance or behaviour at times when you usually would, or feeling like it has become a habit.


Physical withdrawal from a substance can be dangerous. For some, it’s important to be admitted to a medical detox facility to have medical support while withdrawing from substance use.


There is no need to suffer through withdrawal and it’s not a weakness to be admitted to detox.


Psychological withdrawal can and often does last longer. Therapy with a professional who specializes in addiction treatment can help with this by helping you to develop the tools and skills to manage this withdrawal and to build coping tools/skills that can be used to deal with the issues that the substance/behaviour was being used to manage.


It’s important to remember that any distress you feel when you quit the substance/behaviour is not how you’ll feel forever. Increased distress and anxiety will likely level out after approximately 4 weeks of abstinence again depending on the addiction and other factors.


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