02 Dec

Addiction and Mental Health

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Addiction can be simply described as “ the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity”, but the reasoning and effects of addiction are not so easy to explain.

In terms of mental illness, sometimes it may seem like “the chicken or the egg”; did the mental illness lead to the addiction, or did the addiction affect someone’s mental health?  To explain this further, we need to first look at addiction, what it is and how it is formed.

What is addiction?

Most people think of addiction as substance abuse in some form, whether it is drinking, smoking or taking drugs, and of course, these are very serious addictions, but there are also many other ways in which people are addicted.

To look at some other serious and not so obvious addictions; work may be an addiction, of course people want to do the best they can, see the benefits of their success, but it can easily become overwhelming to the point that someone may start cancelling plans to stay at work, miss out on events, ruin relationships and physically and mentally exhaust themselves to the point of illness. Shopping, it may start as a few things here and there, but then you may start hiding what you have really spent from others, you may be buying so much you don’t know what you’ve brought or why, you may find yourself in incredible amounts of debt. Sleep, maybe you want to shut out the world, maybe you are using medication to do so, maybe you just need to sleep, to rest and try again tomorrow.

Gambling, you win something, it feels great! You lose and it feels like the end of the world, you will do anything to get back up to a win, you may feel ashamed, you may have to hide it from others, you may put yourself in serious and potentially destructive position. Eating, it could be that you’re overeating, binge eating and cant stop, it could be to replace the feelings you have. Maybe you’re not eating, hiding food, skipping meals, you want to feel that control over what you do and don’t eat, both of which may be damaging and harmful.  There are many other ways that people can be addicted, and its one of the hardest things to have to face, to break the cycle and try and break the routine. Addiction can be a coping mechanism and used as technique by many as a way to help deal with difficult and seemingly impossible emotions and to avoid certain situations or issues happening in their lives.

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These activities, substances, decisions may help for a short amount of time, but in the bigger picture, it can make things so much worse for not only the individual, but the friends and family around them too. The cycle of addiction usually starts by wanting to create a feeling. Perhaps it’s a form of escapism, perhaps it’s to get that buzz, that feeling of a ‘high’ back, but either way, its to get a feeling back, and you will do anything you can to feel that way again. All addictions will be slightly different, will affect people in slightly different ways and people will reach for different things, but the common part of any addiction is the compulsion for uncontrollable behaviours.

A lot of the time , people won’t see the problem in their behaviour, at worst think it’s a bad habit they may have gotten into, but it’s important to tell the difference between a habit and addiction as they will have different methods of treatment .

So what is the difference between a habit and an addiction?

Ask yourselves these questions:

  1. Does it have a negative impact on your life in anyway, whether directly or indirectly?
  2. Do you put yourself in risky situations?
  3. Do you have any withdrawal symptoms if you don’t have it?
  4. Have you tried but unsuccessfully manage to break the cycle?

If the answer to any of these four questions is yes, you may be considered to have an addiction.

So addiction is much more of a complex condition. We all expect that if something is taking away our happiness, affecting our behaviours, ruining relationships and making us a person we may no longer remember, that we would stop right? Wrong! A habit you may be able to break, but with addiction it is so much harder.

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How does this affect mental health?

Addiction may be used by those struggling with the effects of mental health, whether diagnosed or not, to ease or mask the symptoms in some way , usually through route of escapism, however these may mean the underlying risk of the mental health problems may become more prominent, for example increase the risk taking , increasing impulsiveness and increasing the effects of impulsiveness. Substance abuse in particular may affect medication, making them less effective and making symptoms feel worse, which in turn, leads them again to try and reach for the ‘good’ feeling they need through the route of their addiction, creating what feels to be a never ending cycle.

It can be seen that due to these changes within cognitive functioning, that addiction is a mental illness. These changes can lead to the persons thoughts becoming distorted , meaning they value some things over others, for example the desperate need for the substance or to carry out the destructive behaviour may come before the basic needs , food , hygiene, employment etc that is beneficial to them therefore it is very important that addiction and mental health have the most effective treatment for the individual.

So when does it become dangerous?

The patterns and seemingly harmless activities are developed and reinforced in your brains every time you partake in the activity, substance etc, creating a cycle. Basically, it feels impossible to stop and these can have an affect on body conditions. The changes in your brain functioning may explain the need to repeat the behaviour, to get the craving, and over time people may become intolerant to the addiction  which means needing larger amounts of the substance, higher amounts of money, higher risks to get that feeling they need. This can become highly unsafe and destructive.

How can addiction be overcome?

Addiction is very hard to beat, and almost impossible alone which is why so many treatments are available to try and help break the behaviours that lead people to due to the uncontrollable actions .

To start with, each person will be evaluated to see what their needs are and how best to meet those requirements. Through medication or therapy techniques such as cognitive behaviour therapy, professionals will help to deal with the underlying causes for addiction, whether substance abuse or behavioural addictions.

It’s important to remember that addiction and mental illness not your fault! The changes in brain functioning and brain structures mean that mental illness and addiction are often inseparable and needs treatment to help both the addictive behaviour and the underlying causes, but there are treatments out there to help. Its not which came first, they are together, its not your fault, its not anyone’s fault, but its important that if you feel you’re in anyway affected that you reach out and get the help you need to move forward!

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Hi, I’m Becky! I studied Psychology and criminology in Bristol and I am the founder of #Strongertogether. I started the charity to help others who may be having a difficult time with mental illness and for those that help support them through the tough times. I have faced my own mental illness struggles within the last few years and want others to know it’s okay to not be okay and to reach out where you feel able. I want people to feel understood, supported and valued, because we all deserve that!