Psychology is the study of human behavior and psychologists work to improve the quality of people’s lives by helping them to steer clear of maladaptive behaviors. Any behavior that limits the normal functioning of an individual and diminishes life satisfaction is termed as a maladaptive behavior. Since addiction is a maladaptive behavior, psychological models are extremely useful to understand why people engage in unhealthy behaviors.
Project Match, the largest study of addiction treatment ever conducted in 1990 examined three main addiction treatments, all of which remain standard today: 12 step facilitation therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy. Each of them was ineffective. Hence, it was clear that something was wrong with the way we treat addictions. More importantly, it was evident that there is something about addiction that we don’t understand yet.
The above three approaches to addiction are based on one or a combination of several theories:
• Addiction is a moral, spiritual problem, hence should be treated with improving one’s connection with God or a Higher Power.
• Addiction is due to ignorance and should be treated with knowledge about how drugs work and the dangers of using them.
• Addiction is due to the lack of motivation to abstain and should be treated by enhancing one’s motivation. • Addiction is due to faulty thinking and should be treated with correct cognitive approaches to one's behavior.
All of these theories overlook the fact that addiction is no different from any other human behaviorwhich is why the standard way of dealing with addictions was a spectacular failure as far back as we can measure.
Addiction a Compulsion
Addictive behaviors don’t occur at random and they occur for a very good reason. They are powerfully impelled actions driven by overwhelming feelings at the moment they are enacted. They are precipitated by emotional distress. They are done even when the people are fully aware of the disastrous consequences and trying their best to refrain from not doing them. In short, they are identical to compulsions. Though addictions are more dangerous than compulsive behaviors, they are fundamentally no more or no less than compulsions.
It is now known for a long time that compulsions can be treated with good psychotherapy that explores the emotional roots behind the symptom. It is a clinically historical error that we didn’t think about these compulsive/addictive behaviors as one and the same.
Part of the reason for this error is that addiction was first attributed to drug related behaviors leading to the widely held belief that drugs were an integral part of addiction. It wasn’t until people began to notice that compulsive gamblers are also alcoholics and that drug addictions are precipitated by emotional events that they realized that addictions can’t be separated from psychological symptoms.
Psychology of Addiction
To treat the basic nature of addictions, we need to know the underlying psychology and this is how it goes:
• Addiction is preceded by a feeling of overwhelming helplessness or powerlessness. The situations or feelings that produce this helplessness are different for different people. An addictive behavior reverses this feeling of helplessness by making the person feel better and empowered because he/she had done something that puts him/her completely in control. The reversal of helplessness is the psychological function of addiction.
• This state is of helplessness that precedes addictive urges is always accompanied by great anger - a normal rage one feels when utterly trapped. It is this rage of helplessness that powers addiction and makes it unstoppable.
• In addiction, the emotional function, the reversing of helplessness and drive, the normal range of feeling trapped are expressed in a substitute action technically called displacement. All addictions are displacements or substitutes for taking a more direct action. It is the displacement nature of addictions that make them appear the way they do.
Psychological symptoms can be understood and treated when you know that these are not spiritual problems, lack of education and motivation or faulty thinking. Such thinking failed us from helping people suffering from addictions because we’ve failed to equate addictive behavior to a psychological symptom.