Many of us would say that we're "addicted" to something in life. What is addiction and how should we approach dealing with it?
“I know it’s a problem, but I just can’t stop!”
“I promise this will be the last time.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
In the Bible, the Apostle Paul described a similar dilemma in his letter to the church at Rome: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”1
Paul’s account of our sinful nature sounds remarkably similar to the process of addiction.
We all know someone whom we consider addicted to something—someone caught up in the cycle of dependence and addiction. Maybe your “someone” is even yourself.
Physiological Addiction and Dependence
Addictions can be physiological in nature. A psychoactive substance—such as certain prescription medicines, illicit or illegal drugs, alcohol, or nicotine—is consumed and impacts body chemistry and physical function. Repeated use of the substance can lead to a condition of physiological dependence. Healthcare professionals agree that drugs, alcohol, and nicotine can be addictive.
The diagnosis of physiological dependence (or addiction) is used to describe those experiencing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. In dependence, tolerance develops. As tolerance builds, more of the substance is required to achieve and maintain the desired physiological state and feeling. Tolerance leads to an increase in amount or frequency of use over time.
Withdrawal, the body’s physiological reaction to not having the substance, is a symptom of dependence. Withdrawal symptoms vary by substance and in severity; in some cases withdrawal can be life-threatening. Stopping use of a substance to which one is addicted is most safely done under the care of a physician.
Psychological Addiction and Dependence
The dependence associated with addiction can also be psychological in nature. This is typically the case with compulsive behaviors. Psychological dependence is not due to physiological conditions but to the emotional feelings associated with the behavior.
Compulsive behaviors can have powerful impacts on our emotional states. Over time the behavior becomes connected with a desired emotional outcome—typically temporary relief from stress.
Dependence develops as the behavior is repeated and continually associated with achieving that desired emotional release. Failed attempts to reduce or eliminate the behavior are seen as symptoms of dependence.
Psychological forms of dependence may include substance use, pathological gambling, excessive spending, compulsive eating, and compulsive sexual behaviors such as pornography and masturbation.
A debate exists among healthcare professionals about classifying compulsive behaviors as addiction. But whether they are labeled addiction or not, compulsive behaviors can have powerful psychological impacts and appear addictive in nature. Compulsive gambling is currently the only behavior officially given an addiction diagnosis.
The Addiction Cycle
Addiction involves continued substance use or participation in a compulsive behavior even when it creates problems in life. These problems might be physical, legal, relational, occupational, or financial.
Often the cycle of addiction starts with a desire to feel better. Over time a substance or behavior becomes associated with temporary emotional reprieve. This relief is often followed by a period of guilt and self-reproach. To ease such negative feelings, the person again uses or engages in the same addictive behavior. And so the cycle continues.
Often we just don’t know how to adjust our emotions appropriately. Excessive spending, gambling, drinking, smoking, eating, pornography use, and masturbation can become habitual ways to adjust emotions.
But it’s only a temporary fix, and before you know it, you need to make the adjustment again.
Helpful Steps for Managing Addiction
Below are seven steps to help deal with addiction.
Recognize the Problem
Denial is the inability to recognize or refusal to admit that you have a problem. An example of denial is getting fired for viewing pornography at work and blaming the job loss on management having it in for you. The denial is present in blaming the boss rather than focusing on the problem with pornography.
Another example would be blaming your spouse for frequent conflict over your emotional unavailability due to hangovers. The denial is present in blaming nagging and unreasonable expectations rather than admitting to a patterned abuse of alcohol.
The first step in dealing with any addictive behavior is to identify the issue and break through denial.
Admit That Addiction Has Power in Your Life
Be honest with yourself and others you trust about the power that addiction has in your life. Paul continues his letter to Rome, describing the power that sin—such as submitting to the behaviors of addiction—has within us: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”2
Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous encourage members to acknowledge their powerlessness over their addiction. That sounds pretty similar to what Paul is describing above.
Recognize that you cannot do it by yourself. Open up to a minister trained in understanding addiction, a professional counselor, or a support group. You don’t have to do this on your own.
Identify Your Triggers
It’s important to identify the precipitating factors that set the compulsive cycle in process—these are known as your “triggers.” It might be positive stress, such as a promotion, or negative stress, such as a time-pressured work task. It may be conflict within a relationship, or it could be simply being around others who are participating in the addictive behavior.
Triggers can be places, people, events, emotional states—even boredom. They can be things we see on TV, billboards, or the Internet. Pinpointing triggers helps identify the conditioning process and aids in the replacement of addictive behavior with appropriate coping mechanisms.
Capture Your Thoughts
Our thoughts play an active role in this process as well. With compulsive addictive behavior there is a great deal of time spent anticipating and planning the behavior. These thoughts generally look forward to the behavior providing emotional relief.
In reality the behavior often leads to despair, but we get proficient at blocking out thoughts or memories of the negative consequences. We tend to focus on only the relief we associate with the addiction, forgetting the guilt and self-reproach that follows the temporary reprieve of acting out the behavior.
But we can capture our thoughts by consciously, vigilantly monitoring and challenging their focus. We can learn to redirect our thoughts, which is an important step in the management of addictive behavior. Romans 13:14 describes this process of thought management: “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”3
Our thoughts are powerful and must be focused on doing God’s will instead of gratifying our sinful nature.
Get in Touch with Your Emotions
Emotional intelligence is the awareness of your own emotions and the emotional states of others. An aspect of emotional intelligence is the development of appropriate emotion management strategies. Emotional intelligence can be learned. It is healthy to identify and appropriately express our emotions rather than suppress them with addictions.
Modify Your Behaviors
Explore God’s Word to understand that he does not intend for you to live this way. God desires to support you in your management of addiction. Romans 7:25 reminds us that God “delivers [us] through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He will help in our recovery process. Our deliverance from addiction comes through behavioral changes supported by a healthy thought life and accountability.
We must replace addictive behaviors with healthy behavior. It is important to battle the urge to return to the addiction. Stop associating with the people who enable your addiction. Develop supportive friends who will encourage you and promote appropriate behavior. Identify and implement new behaviors to replace the addictive ones. Behavior modification is possible, but you will need support. Seek out counseling to help with this process.
Establish Accountability Partners
Rates of relapse—the return to addiction—are extremely high. An effective relapse prevention plan and strong support is vital for recovery. Accountability for your time, money, emotions, behavior, and spirituality is key to success. You need trusted individuals who have your permission to initiate conversations about the status of your addiction. Be completely honest about your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Commit to contact these accountability partners as soon as the urge to act on the addiction surfaces.
Resources for Understanding and Seeking Treatment for Addiction
For further information on understanding and seeking treatment for addiction, check out any local treatment centers near you. For online resources, please see the note below.4