All of us are creatures of habit to one degree or another. Some individuals will feel bereft of energy if they miss an exercise class at the local gym. Others are hooked on “comfort foods” that will often be turned to in times of stress. From simple behaviours such as needing to sleep in a specific position to more destructive habits including alcohol and drug abuse, this type of patterned conditioning plays a very real role in everyday life. Still, many believe that addiction is simply “all in their head”. While this may have been the predominant view within the medical community decades ago, it has now been shown that a powerful physical component exists. Let us briefly examine both sides in order to obtain a clearer idea of what makes some addictions so difficult to break.
The Role of the Neuron
The brain contains countless cells known as neurons. These powerhouses are responsible for everything from maintaining our balance to processing the emotions experienced when viewing a famous painting. Neurons communicate via pathways known as synapses (tiny gaps between the cells). Scientists have discovered that repeating certain types of behaviours or movements will cause the pathways between these cells to realign over time; allowing them to communicate more efficiently with one another. In other words, our way of thinking and behaviour can physically alter the structure of our brains.
This is the reason why the expression “practice makes perfect” is actually quite appropriate. For instance, those who regularly play a musical instrument will become more adept over time. This is not simply a mind-muscle connection. On the contrary, the neurons within the brain are adapting to suit the unique demands of the body. Unfortunately, this is also one of the root causes of an addiction.
Breaking the Pattern
There is no doubt that psychology plays an important role in any addictive behaviour. However, the chemical and physical changes that occur within the brain cannot be taken lightly. This is particularly the case when we speak of habits which cause an individual to experience a “rush”. Examples include smoking a cigarette after a big meal, binge drinking and compulsive gambling. Not only will the individual in question need to modify his or her way of thinking, but the neurons themselves will have to become realigned over time. This is why many addictions are extremely difficult to break.
However, the first step involves the realisation that a problem exists. This is arguably the most difficult part, as many addic