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Why Do We Get Addicted to Things?

Meghna Wani Mar 18, 2020
Have been on a shopping spree lately and simply didn't know where to stop? May be you are addicted to shopping, or may be you are going through a phase of low self-esteem. But how are low self-esteem and shopping related, and why do they occur one after the other?
It is hard to understand addiction unless you have experienced it.
- Ken Hensley
The word 'addiction' was coined from a Latin word 'addicere', that meant 'enslaved' or 'bound to'. To know the power of addiction, you have to ask someone who has tried to overcome it. Its effects are long-lasting and vigorous. It's not that every addiction is bad or detrimental for our health and well-being.
But even if it doesn't affect you health-wise, it is somehow going to dwindle either your bank balance or your perception towards happiness. People tend to opt for a particular thing or behave in a typical way when they are feeling low.
We see people craving for chocolate, coffee, or nicotine, when feeling stressed.
Some become glued to the television or video games, while others try to escape reality with alcohol or drugs. Some say (including me) that "I go shopping, or just read or start writing when I'm bummed out". These instances have become very common nowadays. Let's probe deeper, and understand why we love to do things that 'we love to do'.

What is Addiction?

Humans are hard-wired to be happy, so, they cannot remain sad for a long time. And if sadness stays for a longer period of time, then we try to find a way out by indulging ourselves in 'things' that make us happy.
But, before we realize, the thing or behavior which gives us an escape route becomes a habit, and then an addiction.
Since a long time, it was believed that only narcotics and alcohol could cause an addiction. But as neuroimaging techniques advanced, it was found that certain pleasure-giving acts like eating, shopping, gambling, playing video games, writing, etc., could also become addictions.

Modus Operandi of Addiction

Addiction of any kind exerts its effects in three stages on the brain; first, we crave for the object of addiction; second, we lose control over its use; third, we continue involvement with it, despite knowing its harmful consequences.
Unfortunately, we are left totally unaware of our advancement through these stages, because we don't start with the intention of developing an addiction, but unknowingly get stuck in the bait.

The Principle of Pleasure

Our brain has a pleasure center. It is known as 'nucleus accumbens'. There are a cluster of nerves that lie beneath the cerebral cortex.
Whenever you experience any pleasure-giving activity, like graduating college, salary hike, promotion, delicious meal, romantic dinner, etc., the nerve cells release dopamine. When the nucleus accumbens becomes flooded with dopamine, the hippocampus registers this memory, and tags it with a sense of happiness and satisfaction.
The amygdala further helps by recreating the same response to the same stimuli every time. It's like a signature that gets encrypted into the brain. To make things easier to understand, here's an example. You eat some chocolate, like its taste, and feel happy.
The 'feel-good' chemical dopamine gets released in the brain, and that instance of eating chocolate gets associated with happiness, and is registered permanently. So, the next time you're trying to beat the blues, eating chocolate will strike your mind. You will eat chocolate, the same response will follow, and you will feel happy.
Over a span of time, you will start resorting to binging on not only chocolate, but also other food, that too without the slightest hint of when this casual chocolate-eating instance would become a habit, and eventually an addiction. Same is the case with narcotics. All drugs of abuse flood the brain with artificial dopamine.
This powerful surge of dopamine makes the hippocampus and amygdala tag it with happiness, and register it. Therefore, whenever a person takes drugs, he feels happy. But drug consumption is more harmful than any other addiction, because of the development of tolerance.

Development of Tolerance

To keep an individual alive, the brain adapts to the onslaught of external dopamine by reducing the production of natural dopamine or eliminating the neuroreceptors of dopamine. Due to this process, the person develops tolerance. Eventually, the dose that previously used to give him a 'high', would no longer give as much pleasure.
Hence, the individual has to take more of it to get the same reeling feeling. The craving keeps increasing, and eventually compulsion takes over. Even with other types of addictions, where no external dopamine is involved, the body's natural dopamine makes us get addicted to a particular thing or a certain behavior.
Dopamine acts as a shortcut to happiness, and most of the time, it is forced.
The natural route to happiness is usually long and tiring. And in today's world, nobody wants to wait. Therefore, an alternative is sought. This alternative brings about an artificial sense of elation, thereby, explaining the quick addiction to things around us.