“Why have I become addicted to/ dependent on drugs (or alcohol)?” Considering psychological dependence.

There are two components of drug/ alcohol dependency; 1) the physical, and 2) the psychological. In this post I will consider the psychological aspect. In the next blog post, I will discuss the physical aspect of drug and alcohol dependency.

In counselling, these questions are often pondered by clients who have an addiction (or ‘problematic’ drug/ alcohol use). Oftentimes, in being able to answer them, they feel empowered. They use the answers to reduce their chance of lapsing/ relapsing into drug or alcohol use. Knowing what underlies one’s drug or alcohol use assists in the identification of triggers/ situations in which one will be at high-risk of using drugs or alcohol again. Counselling can help clients to determine what underlies their drug/ alcohol use (i.e. develop insight). Moving forward, counselling can then assist clients to resolve issues associated with their drug/ alcohol use, and develop alternative coping strategies for life stressors (which they previously used drugs/ alcohol to cope with). Through these three components counselling can reduce the likelihood of the individual relapsing into substance use.

An individual may come to encounter drugs under various circumstances. One of the most commonly reported by those who develop an addiction is that drugs/ alcohol were made available to them within a social setting. Within this setting, the decision to use the drugs can be influenced by a number of factors, including, wanting to ‘fit in’/ use them to socially bond, wanting to ‘have fun’ (whilst believing that drugs/ alcohol will assist with this), wanting to ‘party longer without getting tired’, or curiosity. Other times, an individual’s first experience of using drugs or alcohol occurs outside of a social setting. This can include prescription medication.

Regardless of what circumstances drugs or alcohol were first used in, individuals come to learn (sometimes outside of their awareness) of the psychological effects. This includes what drugs/ alcohol can provide on an emotional level. Sometimes the draw to use is attributed to the potential for drugs/ alcohol to generate or enhance pleasant feelings/ emotions. Other times the decision to use drugs/ alcohol is influenced by the desire to escape unpleasant feelings/ emotions. Either way, the brain adjusts to having its chemical balance altered, by trying to counteract the effects. As a result of these chemical adjustments made by the brain, the individual is prone to experiencing a psychological withdrawal when the drug is not available. During a psychological withdrawal, the individual can expect to experience the opposite feelings/ emotions to when affected by the substance; this then leads them to use again, to avoid experiencing these emotions.

This should not be considered a complete account of factors underlying drug and alcohol addiction; a complete overview is beyond the scope of this blog post.