an addiction or compulsion
Whether we are talking about overuse of drugs or alcohol, or the overdoing of behaviours such as gambling, shopping, eating, or sex, the reality is that you probably need to get professional help if you are experiencing these two situations:
- You cannot stop seeking the substance (alcohol or some drug) or performing the behaviour (such as gambling, sexual acts, overspending, or overeating)
- The behaviour is destroying you, your family, and your life, through the loss of physical and emotional health, relationships, and self-esteem, to say nothing of huge financial costs.
Addiction and compulsion rewire the parts of the brain that are involved with reward, pleasure, and impulse control, such that as the addiction or compulsion deepens, it is not only increasingly difficult to stop, but also, it takes increasing levels of the substance or behaviour just to get to the same level of “high” as before: eventually, just to feel “normal”. If the following five factors define your situation, you need to get serious about getting help to get past the addiction/compulsion:
- Impossible to abstain. You find it impossible to consistently refrain from the substance or behaviour; there is a sense of urgency, of “must do” or “must have”.
- You lose control of your behaviour. As you do the substance or behaviour more, your brain circuitry rewires itself, such that it becomes harder and harder to control your impulses, especially the urges toward the substance or behaviour. You use the substance or engage the behaviour more and more, doing it more often or at a higher level than what you intended – and you have a sense that you can’t stop.
- You crave the substance, or hunger for the rewarding experience (the shopping, sex, food, or gambling session). You find that you are becoming preoccupied with the substance or the behaviour. In addition to the brain changes resulting from the addiction, you change your behaviour to focus now on mostly those rewards that are part of the addiction/compulsion. This means that, in addition to not being able to stop the behaviour (point (2)) you are less and less interested in anything that is not the behaviour/substance.
- You are in denial, having an altered evaluation of the significant problems in your behaviour, relationships, and finances. The brain changes that occur with addiction mean that you begin to have an altered sense of the cost/benefit ratio of the substance or behaviour. That is, you are no longer able to evaluate impartially just how much the addiction or compulsion is costing you in terms of health, relationships, finances, or lost career opportunities. Because emotional changes are occurring as well which make it hard for you to identify feelings, you are now vulnerable to deceiving yourself about just how bad things are getting. This denial affects all major areas of your life, including relationships, which in turn means that – without your social supports – your coping skills are reduced.
- Your emotional responses become dysfunctional. Over time, the addiction/compulsion gives you greater anxiety, depression, and emotional pain. You see all life events as being more stressful, and – because you need greater and greater amounts of the substance/behaviour to attain the same “high” as before -- you soon find that you don’t even really get high with a session anymore; you merely avoid the withdrawal symptoms (American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2012).