What Drives Addiction?

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Why do people become so addicted? Don’t they have some self-control?

For people who have no addiction, or are not living with anyone who is struggling with addiction, it is different to understand what drives people from using to becoming seemingly irreversibly addicted to substances or behaviors.

Meet John. He listens to the dial tone for a while after his boss hung up the phone on the other line. His boss just told him he cannot have the raise he was expecting because the company just suffered a huge loss. As John put down his phone and then drives off the parking lot to go home, he felt the familiar, almost overwhelming urge to go and smoke some meth.

Why is this?


Perhaps Lance Dodes, MD, a Training and Supervising Analyst emeritus with the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, can explain. He has written and co-written many book chapters and journal articles about addiction, including the groundbreaking books, The Heart of Addiction (HarperCollins, 2002), Breaking Addiction: A Seven-Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction (HarperCollins, 2011) and The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry (Beacon Press, 2014).

According to Dodes, addiction must also be understood not only biologically but also psychologically. Addiction is caused by certain emotional triggers, and for John’s case, he felt trapped. For some reason, he knows he has to be there for his wife and family. However, he felt like he cannot just comply either. This dilemma felt uncomfortable and disturbing, and as always as before, he always feels like he has to do something to not feel what he is feeling. For him, that “something” has always been meth.

Dodes cites the three psychological elements that drive addiction:

  1. Every addictive act is preceded by a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness.  The issues that precipitate these overwhelmed states of helplessness are unique to each person (correspondingly, treatment must be individualized toward understanding these issues).  Addictive behavior functions to repair this underlying feeling of helplessness.  It is able to do this because taking the addictive action (or even deciding to take this action) creates a sense of being empowered – of regaining control – over one’s emotional experience and one’s life.  Drugs are particularly good for this purpose because altering (and thereby controlling) one’s emotional state is just what they do.  However, non-drug addictions can be shown to work in exactly the same way, since they are also acts that work to change (and therefore reassert power over) how one feels.  The reversal of helplessness achieved by these addictive acts may be described as the psychological purpose of addiction.
  1. States of overwhelming helplessness, such as the feelings that precipitate addictive acts, produce a feeling of rage.  This rage is actually a normal response to the serious emotional injury of losing a sense that one is in control over oneself and one’s life.  This rage is the powerful drive behind addiction.  And we know something about great anger at powerlessness: it has the capacity to overwhelm a person’s judgment while he or she is in the throes of the rage.  It is precisely the presence of this rage at helplessness that gives to addiction its most defining characteristics: great intensity with loss of usual judgment and seemingly irrational destructive behavior.
  1. In addiction, the rage at helplessness is always expressed via a substitute behavior (a displacement)If this feeling were expressed directly, there would be no addiction.  For example, if a man were flooded with feelings of intolerable helplessness when he was unfairly criticized by his boss (because the criticism touched on old sensitivities, for instance), and he then charged into his boss’s office furiously complaining, there would be no addiction.  But if he displaced his need to reverse his helplessness, and instead of charging in to the boss’s office he went home to drink, then his drinking would be driven by the same rage he would have expressed toward his boss.  If drinking were the way he regularly dealt with states of overwhelming helplessness then he would have a repetitive, intensely-driven, apparently irrational drive to drink.  We call such compulsive behavior an addiction.

In John’s case, he needed that raise and the news was greatly saddening. He would have handled it well and thought of another way to augment his low income, or simply explain to his wife they have to be more stringent. Instead, he reacted with his typical emotional mechanism, which has time and again led him back to his addiction.

Do you feel the same feelings of helplessness and powerlessness? Do you often feel trapped and therefore resort to your “easy way out,” your escape? Perhaps you need to talk to someone about this. We’re here to help you.

Text 0917-509-8826 or Call 622-0193

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