“Addictions” can mean many things to many people. Alcohol and drug addictions are well known. However, there are many addictions: sex, internet pornography, gambling, food, shopping, exercise, pain killers (opioids), relationship, among others. Millions of people are seriously addicted.
Is there a definition of “addiction” that covers all of these conditions, and what can be done to prevent addictions? This article will seek answers to these questions. Among the many definitions of addiction, this is one of the most useful:
“Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable”
This definition comes from the American Addictions Centers, Inc and covers the entire range of addictions such as behavioral, relationship, and substance addictions.
A similar definition is the following:
“The word addiction is a term used to describe an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of its negative consequences.”
This definition comes from the book Treating Pornography Addiction by Dr. Kevin B. Skinner.
Addiction used to be thought of as a dependency on substances such as alcohol, heroin, cocaine and a host of other licit and illicit drugs. In recent years addiction has expanded to include many behaviors. As one website puts it, “It is the compulsive nature of the behavior that is often indicative of a behavioral addiction.” The compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite the negative impact on an individual life is the definition of behavior addiction. The website goes on: “The person may find the behavior rewarding psychologically or get a “high” while engaged in the activity but may later feel guilt, remorse, or even overwhelmed by the consequences of that continued choice.”
The earlier definition above acknowledges the fact that most addictions start with the pursuit of pleasure. With substances such as alcohol or drugs, the initial pleasure is in the “high” or “buzz” or “effects” from the drinking of beer, wine, or spirits, (or the pleasurable effects from cocaine, heroin, etc.). Over time, one seeks out more of the pleasures from the alcohol and drugs. The initial search for pleasure, which is often repeated, becomes a “habit” or “dependency” which leads to addiction.
In a similar way, the initial pursuit of pleasure in a relationship, or sexual activity, does not automatically become an addiction. However, repeated indulgence can become an addiction (sexual addiction, pornography addiction, relationship addiction, gambling addiction, etc.) The compulsive nature of the behavior is a sure sign of the loss of control.
The above definition also suggests that there may be “value” to the participant involved in the addictive behavior. Sex addicts use pornography to lower stress or anxiety (masturbation temporarily relieves tension), while relationship addicts may use the pursuit of others to ward off depression or low-self esteem (emotional self-regulation). The opioid epidemic started out as an attempt to regulate pain (a good value) but became a compulsion for millions.
So our definitions of addiction includes repeated involvement with a substance or activity despite the substantial harm it now causes.
The key concept here is “despite the substantial harm it now causes.” We all know, or have heard about, gamblers who experienced substantial harm by losing financial assets, loss of their homes and eventually loss of their marriages and families. Likewise, thousand of men and women have experienced substantial harm from drinking or drug use. They have lost their health, their jobs, their reputations and their loved ones. Whatever the addiction is, the addiction can cause substantial harm. The loss of control, after many attempts to stop, often leads to numerous losses and results in remorse, guilt and shame.
There are criteria for assessment of substance or behavioral addictions on-line and most mental health professionals are trained in assessing and treating these addictions. There are many highly trained specialists for all of these behaviors and substances. There are hot-lines, community agencies, county, state and federal resources, books and literature, 12-step programs, Christian programs (such as Celebrate Recovery) that are available. Primary care physician, specialist in physical health and mental health, and related fields are prepared to assist addicts.
But perhaps most important is the need to prevent addictions. One of the first steps to take is to do some reading. Go to Amazon or look on-line to find resources about specific addictions. You will find many suggestions to prevent the onset of a particular addiction. Book titles such as Preventing Addiction and Addiction Proof Your Child: A Realistic Approach to Preventing Drug, Alcohol, and Other Dependencies are the kind of reading resources you can find. Addictions are incredibly complex and there are no simple answers. All addictions have deep roots such as: from earlier trauma, broken relationships, frustrations in life, dysfunctional families, mental health issues, etc.. That’s why prevention of addiction is difficult, but not impossible.
For example. research shows that 50% of children from an alcoholic parent will become an alcoholic, But there is no way to predict which child will develop a drinking problem. So it is important that each child be guided in ways that will help prevent the abuse of alcohol. Or another example, if a child is exposed at an early age to pornography and inappropriate sexual activities, research shows that he or she becomes more at risk to develop a sexual addiction. Educating children and teens about appropriate touch and sexual behavior helps prevent later sexual addictions. The Concordia sex education series is a good way to provide prevention and appropriate behavior.
Prevention involves development of good character, spiritual values, ability to manage crises (large and small), learning delayed gratification, learning how to distract oneself from temptations or dangerous behaviors, learning to forgive oneself, and learning how to deal with shame, guilt and self-loathing. How one feels deep inside has everything to do with what drives addiction. There is always an important mental and emotional component in addictive behaviors. Preventive mental health is necessary. Spiritual health is a foundation for prevention as well. That’s why 12-step programs are so important in prevention and recovery with relapses.
There are specific prevention guidelines for every addiction. For instance, the Addiction Recovery Workbook: Powerful Skills for Preventing Relapse Every Day speaks to the need for ongoing need for prevention. Other titles such as Breaking the Cycle: Free Yourself from Sex Addiction, Porn, Obsession, and Shame, helps prevent readers from activities and thoughts that become harmful. Whether it is gambling or shopping or relationship addiction, there are behaviors designed for preventing and overcoming these impulses and obsessions.
There are classics in the addiction literature that resonate deeply with those suffering, such as Don’t Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addiction by Patrick Carnes or Obsessive Love: When It Hurts Too Much To Let Go by Susan Forward.
When we consider how many people are addicted, we thank God for the many pathways to healing the psychological pain of addiction. We pray that others find their way into programs and into the offices of therapists and physicians who care for these patients and clients who are trying to find their way out of these traps and snares. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program is the first step in recovery and prevention.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable”
You can substitute any other substance or activity or relationship in this first step above. It is an admission and a step towards becoming submissive to help. The first step is so important.
In “Addiction, Part 2” we will cover more specific addictions and resources.
(Article written by Pastor Ron Rehrer, Marriage and Family Therapist, Counselor for Church Workers,, Pacific Southwest District; phone 949-433-5182; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)