The term addiction is often used casually: “I’m addicted to Instagram …” “I’m addicted to tattoos,” or “I’m totally addicted to that TV show,” but a true addiction is chronic, progressive and can result in devastation.
“An addiction is a maladaptive overindulgence in behavior — in process or in substance — that has become self destructive.”
This definition was supplied by Kristin Agar, a licensed clinical social worker as well as a certified intervention professional and certified Arise Interventionist. She has practiced since 1978 and is one of a handful of Arkansas-based professionals who specialize in addiction recovery.
“Having an addiction is getting involved with something to the extent that it harms you or your loved ones and you’re unable to stop,” she said, expounding on her previous definition. “It is a chronic illness, a brain disease. We know, through actual scans of the brain, that when you place stimuli in front of an addict, it causes a reaction.” For instance, showing a cocaine addict a photograph of the house where he purchased cocaine causes the brain to become stimulated.
She said the most common addictions are gambling, gaming, shopping and pornography; these are process addictions. Alcohol, food and drug addictions are the most common substance addictions.
“We think of substance abuse the most, but gaming, gambling and pornography can undo your family just as much. These addictions cause individuals to go bankrupt and wreck the family,” Agar said. Many times the underlying causes are anxiety and depression. It’s a cycle, she added. “People use addictive behavior to cope with anxiety and depression and this simply exasperates the problem: You use [or gamble or overeat], and beat yourself up about it, become depressed or anxious about it, and repeat the addictive behavior to try to escape those feelings. It’s a way to try to escape reality. Addiction occurs and is often related to stress and a bigger issue that speaks to the underlying dysfunction.”
How can one distinguish between a slight problem and an addiction?
Agar said when family and friends say things like “You know better,” “You weren’t brought up this way,” or “It feels like I’m living with a stranger,” it’s time to sound an alarm.
“A slight problem becomes an addiction when it interferes with a person’s professional or personal life… when he loses the ability to keep something in check,” she said.
Another warning sign is a change in behavior: “When an easygoing individual becomes secretive, agitated and isolated. In teens, we’ll often see a change in their friends, and they may begin to act and dress differently.”
Agar said while professional help is always good, “we’ve been blessed” with good nonprofessional ways to get help: organizations like Overeaters Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc. She said the meetings are effective because they’re one-on-one interactions with people who have walked the path, and she sometimes recommends patients attend 12-step programs.
To overcome an addiction, she said you must stop the behavior; find the underlying cause; and replace the behavior with something positive and find new coping skills, whether it’s religion or spirituality, meditation, relaxation or even exercise. Her recommendation: “Find your passion. Get out of yourself and help others,” she said. “Find a hobby, play sports or get involved with a community group.”
Agar said recovery can also involve cognitive behavior therapy, changing the thought process, and adjunct treatments, such as acupuncture and meditation.
“And because this isn’t just about the individual, treatment has to involve the family and friends because they’re impacted and [the relationships may also be a part of the stress and anxiety that played into the addiction].”
“It will also include staying away from triggers for a time. Remember, addiction is an inability to stop [negative behaviors], even though you know the consequences,” Agar said.
Addiction recovery may include outpatient therapy, whether individual or group therapy, or intensive outpatient programs, which Agar said involves learning about physical, mental and emotional aspects of addiction as well as the cognitive behavior therapy she described.
“It’s important that we remove the shame, blame and guilt associated with addiction and replace them with resilience, hope and strength,” Agar said. “Addiction is a family illness. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been touched by some sort of addiction. There have been an extraordinary number of deaths of youth who have overdosed on opiates. They [teens] often start with one thing, such as [marijuana] then escalate to something else. Pressure, stress and grief are common problems for youth.”