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The science of addiction

If someone is struggling with a gambling addiction, what is something they could do right now to help themselves?

Talk to somebody.

Talk to a spouse, a sibling, a teacher, or a mentor – anyone who can offer you support and help. Most downward spirals occur once we internalise and hide behaviours. Bringing someone else into the tent can help alleviate this.

If you cannot talk to someone you know, talk to someone you don't know by accessing a phone service, like Gambler’s Help. Voicing issues is the first step.

How do you differentiate between a habit and an addiction?

This is really tricky – and no-one yet has made a good distinction.

Currently, the difference is best defined psychologically. Regardless of what's happening in the brain, addiction occurs when personal, social or professional life starts to suffer due to the habit.

When does a habit become an addiction?

This will be personal. At what point do you choose to recognise personal, professional or social detriments? Some people might say missing a relative's birthday party qualifies, others would say missing it was simply a choice.

That's the tricky thing with defining addiction psychologically – there is no objective measure or moment when a habit becomes an addiction. It becomes one when a person acknowledges it is.

Why is it so common for people to relapse when they try to stop gambling?

There are two main reasons.

Firstly, the brain (and our body and genes) stores everything. This is a safety mechanism. We never know when the world is going to change and if we're going to need to rely on some past thought, action, or trait, so the body maintains everything as insurance. For instance, we still have our genes for gills – so, if the world floods, we could revert to breathing underwater much easier and faster than if we had to rebuild those traits from scratch. Every habit you've had is still lying dormant in the system.

Secondly, complacency. Once a person comes out of an addiction and starts to feel good, they often return to past cues, thinking they can 'handle' them. They might return to a particular bar or watch a particular sport. The cues tempt the brain to reactivate the dormant habit – so, we play with fire and test ourselves, but many don't succeed. Once we activate an old habit, it can come back in full force, with the brain simply returning to an old pattern.

Luckily, after a relapse we have more knowledge and experience to draw upon. This means quitting the second time is easier than the first, and the third time is easier again. It might not be a straight line, but we're always moving in the right direction.

Can mindfulness help with addiction?

Absolutely. Mindfulness helps us be aware of our own thoughts and behaviour patterns. Once you're aware of your thoughts in the present moment, you can let them go and choose differently. A lot of addictive behaviour is due to the brain mindlessly moving through prediction mode – mindfulness helps to short circuit this autopilot.

What’s the difference between a chemical addiction and a behavioural addiction?

Nothing. Chemical addiction is simply defined as a change in brain chemistry that dictates the need for a specific chemical to be maintained, and all addiction is chemical under this definition. Furthermore, a change in chemistry does not require a change in behaviour. Many servicemen returning to the US from Vietnam were no doubt chemically addicted to opiates, yet 88 per cent of surveyed veterans did not relapse once back home. This is something that should have been impossible under the chemical model.

In the end, until we have more and better data, it's safe to say all addiction is a behavioural addiction that manifests as chemical changes in the brain and body, but these chemical changes reflect the addiction rather than drive it.


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