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What is addiction and how to beat it

Vast numbers of us do things to excess, or have the feeling that it might be difficult to stop doing something, or sometimes wonder why on earth we have just done something that seemed attractive before we did it.

Over 25% of all Britons smoke, for example, a behaviour that costs tens of thousands of pounds in the course of an average lifetime, and not only shortens that life but makes it unpleasant for others and often dreadful for the smoker. However, a proper understanding of the givens of human nature could change all that.

Addiction spreads to every kind of pleasurable behaviour: drinking, surfing (wave and internet), sex, food, and so on. Some activities or substances can generate a feeling that is so powerful that life without that feeling may never seem worthwhile again. For example, many gamblers have a big win early in their career and then spend the rest of their life chasing that buzz.

Why do addictions seem so hard to beat?

So what is it that makes addictions so easy to acquire and so difficult for most people to shake off? The answer lies in the chemical reward mechanisms that the human brain uses to motivate itself to act and learn.

The excitement we get when we are keen to do something is produced by dopamine, a natural brain chemical, very like cocaine in its effect, that raises our emotional level so we want to take action. And the warm feelings of satisfaction we get after doing something — eating, laughing, having sex, or achieving some new understanding or skill — are produced by endorphin, another natural substance (which is similar to heroin). Working together these chemicals keep us interested in doing the biological functions that preserve the species, and stretch each one of us to learn and achieve.

In a well-balanced life, a reasonable amount of natural reward is felt by the human every day, but in a life where essential emotional needs are not met and abilities are not stretched, the rewards do not come and life feels flat and meaningless.

This kind of life is rich territory for addictions to target, as every addictive substance or behaviour either stimulates a reward mechanism or provides a chemical reward directly. Dangerous activities stimulate production of dopamine, generating a feeling of exhilaration; injecting heroin gives a warm, cosy feeling like the natural feelings of satisfaction you might get after fulfilling any biologically necessary function.

Addiction can be beaten

Addiction can be beaten by many people without necessarily becoming dependent on a recovery group and without having to consider yourself as an 'addict' for the rest of your life.

To get away from addictive behaviour it is necessary to understand two things: the way these reward mechanisms work, and the way life should be constructed in order to receive the natural rewards that make addictive activities less attractive.

A human givens therapist will work with people who have compulsive behaviours to help them get their real emotional needs met and acquire the strategies and understanding that will enable them to walk away from danger and embrace a whole life.

Self-help

If you or someone you know suffers from addiction, there are many things that people can do to help themselves. Useful information can be found in the best-selling book Freedom from Addiction, by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell.

Further learning

Continue learning about addiction with Human Givens College...

Online course:

Tackling Addiction - Discover why we are all vulnerable to addictions, what causes and drives addictive and compulsive behaviours – and the best ways to overcome them

UK based one-day course:

Brief therapy for stopping addictions – a practical skills-based day

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