The science behind addiction
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Addiction can be a straight-up crippling thing to live with.
You’re forced to deal with constant waves of panic and unease, potentially then racing back to your chosen comfort blanket whether that’s nicotine or heroin, addiction is addiction.
I’ve known a few addicts in my time, some who were addicted to alcohol or gambling and others who were addicted to cocaine and heroin.
My friend joked the other day that she was addicted to cheese, and to be honest, I think I could pop myself in that bracket too.
From alcohol to heroin to sugar or cheese, the NHS says that addiction is anything you're over doing, talking or using to the point where it could be hurting you. It really is possible to be addicted to anything like work, shopping or the internet.
But really, what’s the science behind it? My tutor at university was always one for speaking the truth, but even he wasn’t too sure on the realities behind it. I’ve been told that the best way to avoid becoming addicted is to avoid it, but really odds are, unless your millionaire, it wouldn’t be that easy to avoid work just in case you get addicted.
Excitingly, scientists are talking about how your genetics actually might be to blame for your addictions.
They’re saying that if you’ve got a certain gene called CHRNA5, you’ll be twice as likely as getting addicted to nicotine. Great for the CEO of Marlboro, but not so great for you.
Having this gene basically means you won't FEEL the negative effects of nicotine for longer, and it makes it tastier for you to smoke than other people without the gene.
Turns out, they’re saying it’s the same for not being addicted. So if you’ve got a gene called ALDH2 you’re nine times less likely to become an alcoholic than someone with the gene, because the gene makes you feel more sicky after drinking than others, crazy right?
My cousin always used to bang on about how ‘your tribe becomes your vibe’, and I guess she was right, as it's not just your genes that are affecting you when it comes to addiction, it's also who you’re surrounding yourself with.
In the science world, there’s a pretty famous experiment called Rat Park.
Scientists left rats alone in cages in unhealthy living environments with plain tap water and then heroin infused water, the rats preferred the water with free heroin.
Put the rats in healthy living spaces, and they preferred plain water.
This and other experiments showed that stressful environments are more likely to induce damaging behaviours, whereas more relaxed environments make them irrelevant. At this point, I might be printing this article off and sending it to everyone’s workplace… seems we really should just stop working now!
But with all jokes aside, it’s easy to see why we need to change our opinions on addiction.
Our lack of understanding of what causes addiction means that it could just as easily have affected either of us.
And in many cases, the person suffering from addiction doesn’t just ‘not have the willpower’ to quit. They know and see the pain and suffering it is creating around them. Whether that’s my mum telling me to stop eating cheese because there’s none for her cheese on toast, or if it's my friend who had to be hospitalised for an addiction to illegal drugs.
Addiction creates a craving that’s often stronger than any one person can overcome alone.
That’s why people battling addiction deserve our support and compassion, rather than the distrust and exclusion that our society too often provides. After all, in the words of my cousin, your tribe really does seem to become your vibe.
To speak to someone anonymously about any type of addiction, you can call the Samaritans free on 116123