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Addiction: Compulsive Avoidance of Immediate Pain
"Nobody ever grew up wanting to be an addict."

Addiction is a loaded word that evokes strong reactions such as fear, anger, pity, condemnation, compassion, and disgust. The issues around addiction are confusing and complicated. Is it a physical thing or a psychological thing, or both? Is it inherited or learned? Are there good addictions? Does addiction always imply substance abuse? Is it an illness or a moral weakness? If you asked five people, even five experts, to explain addiction, you would probably get five different responses.

Here are three definitions of addiction from the web: (1) An illness in which a person seeks and consumes a substance, such as alcohol, tobacco, or a drug, despite the fact that it causes harm; (2) dependence on a substance (such as alcohol or other drugs) or an activity to the point that stopping is very difficult and causes severe physical and mental reactions; (3) an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of its negative consequences.

What are the core elements of addiction? First, addiction involves a compulsive Addiction is a compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of its negative consequences. Photo by Carl Benedict.behavior that leads to negative consequences. Secondly, despite the negative consequences, the behaviors persist, ultimately leading to more negative consequences. In short, addiction appears to be a syndrome in which addicted persons become tricked into believing that something harmful is actually beneficial, and in extreme instances, that something harmful is vitally necessary - as necessary as breath to a drowning man. But how is that possible? How can addicts believe that something is helping them when in reality it is destroying them?

Physical addiction and psychological addiction: Being physically addicted to alcohol means the body has adapted to the chronic use of alcohol to such a degree that in its absence the body can't function properly or doesn't feel right. As a result, the alcoholic compulsively seeks out alcohol to avoid the painful bodily sensations of withdrawal. Being psychologically addicted means that workaholics, for example, work compulsively to keep uncomfortable emotions such as depression or anxiety at bay. Thus, psychological addictions are unconscious strategies for avoiding emotional pain whereas physical addictions involve compulsive behaviors to avoid the physical pain of withdrawal. In either case, addicted persons act compulsively to avoid immediate pain. An addiction may be both psychological and physical. For example, a person may use alcohol to deal with anxiety as well as to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Below is Carl's 4-minute YouTube video describing, "What is Addiction and Substance Abuse?":


How do people become addicted? First, there is a genetic component to alcoholism, which means that the brains of some individuals appear to be programmed to lose control of drinking. Yet, physical addiction (alcoholism) and psychological addiction (workaholism) often begin in a similar manner. Individuals struggling to cope with painful emotions, such as depression, boredom, stress, loneliness, or anxiety, may discover that alcohol or constant working gives immediate relief, either by inducing pleasure or decreasing emotional pain. Over time, however, the seemingly beneficial experience of alcohol or constant working erodes as negative consequences mount. For example, the person may drink in inappropriate circumstances or the workaholic may neglect his family. In addition, over time the alcoholic may begin to experience physical addiction, adding even more pain. As the scenario progresses, alcoholics and workaholics compulsively turn to alcohol or constant working - in ever-increasing desperation - to try to find some relief from the snowballing pain and stress. This insidious downward spiral can ultimately lead to physical and/or emotional breakdown.

The important point is this. The overwhelmed alcoholic compulsively chooses short-term relief (drinking to escape depression and the building chaos) over long term self-care (getting help for depression and dealing with problems directly). To put it another way, it is the compulsive avoidance of immediate pain that paradoxically leads to ever-increasing pain. That's why Alcoholics Anonymous says that sobriety is about "learning to live life on life's terms."

Addiction is the polar opposite of maturity. Addicts base decisions on short-term impulse for immediate gratification or immediate avoidance of pain rather than long-term best interest. Mature individuals base decisions on long-term best interest rather than short-term impulse for immediate gratification or immediate avoidance of pain.

As a therapist in a community mental health center, I observe the effects of addiction on a daily basis - the broken lives, the emotional pain, the fear, the guilt, the hopelessness, the loss, and, yes, the heroic stories of clients learning to overcome addiction. Coming to grips with addiction and finding the road to recovery require courage, commitment, and usually the help of others. It is extremely painful for alcoholics to overcome denial and realize that their best friend (alcohol) is really their worst enemy, and the pain of that realization itself often triggers cravings to drink. If addicts are going to stop using, they must find better ways to deal with pain, and that's where counseling and self-help groups like Alcoholic Anonymous can be of great benefit.

Below is Carl's 6-minute YouTube video describing, "8 Essentials for Recovery from Addiction":


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All Text and many photos by Carl Benedict

"Our very life depends on everything's recurring till we answer from within."  Robert Frost