understanding addiction
5th September 2017

Understanding addiction

Addiction is a tough subject to tackle and is one with which almost all of us have a personal relationship.  Whether it be struggles within ourselves, our families, our partners or our friends, we all know the damage that addiction can cause to a life.

People with addiction are not able to control what they are doing, taking or using.  Addiction is directly harmful to the individual on both an emotional and a physical level. It is also often a tremendous burden on those involved in the addicted person’s life.

Understanding the nature of addiction is complex and difficult and there is no definitive answer as to why it occurs and how it takes hold. In this guide we will do our best to give you a broad overview of the issues behind and associated with it, and outline some of the research that we find fits with our treatment philosophy.

Perspectives on Addiction?

Addiction used to be viewed primarily as a moral failing, a sign of weakness in an individual’s character and a sign of a weak will. However, advances in scientific research and a general shift in ways of thinking has led to a more nuanced understanding.

Addiction is a slippery term and is often used imprecisely and/or is confused with the object of the addiction so is displaced into the alcohol or other drug through which it manifests.   Thus the substance or behaviour becomes the enemy and many ‘treatment’ models will advocate for abstinence from a single substance or behaviour alone, without understanding the true nature of addiction that exists within the addict, rather than the substance consumed or the behaviour adopted.

The subject of addiction remains a contentious one and research has tried to identify the cause of addiction but without success.  The reasons why somebody may become addicted are unknown and theories range from attributing it to nature (a genetic predisposition), nurture (a response to social circumstances), or a co-incidence of both. People suffer from addiction for what can seem like many different reasons and many quasi and credible causes are propounded but as yet there have been no definitive answers.

Some subscribe to the disease model, others, however, are keen to move away from the discussion of addiction as a ‘disease’, as it implies that addiction can be treated as any other disease, or that a simple cure may be found.

Most arguments, however, acknowledge that the brain has a crucial role to play in addiction, with three main areas affected by substance use:

  • The brain stem – The brain stem sends signals to and from the body from the brain, and controls things like breathing, sleeping and heart rate.
  • The cerebral cortex – This part of the brain controls the so-called ‘executive functions’, which include things like decision making, planning and sensory processing.
  • The limbic system – This is the body’s emotional reward centre, and controls the ability to experience pleasure and motivation for activities vital to survival, like having sex or eating.

Whether addiction is nature or nurture, this latter system plays a crucial role in addiction taking root in the brain. Drugs have chemical structures that mimic the neurotransmitters of the limbic system, interfering with the normal neuronal processing of the brain.

This results in the brain releasing neurotransmitters in excessive amounts, providing greater pleasure than would naturally occur in the brain.

This in turn leaves a surplus of neurotransmitters in the synapse and that affects the behaviour of other neurons, altering the person’s ability to function and her/his mood. Because of the pleasurable experience, the reward centre of the brain is activated, reinforcing the action. These hooks are why giving up things like alcohol and other drugs is extremely difficult.

However, understanding addiction is not that simple.

Consider heroin addiction, for example. Were you to ask somebody ‘what causes heroin addiction?’, they would be likely to indicate that heroin was the cause, thereby locating the addiction in the substance rather than the person.  And it is true that were you to use heroin for 20 days, by the 21st day your body would crave the drug.

But consider this.  If you were to break your hip you may be given diamorphine for weeks or even months.  Diamorphine is pharmaceutical heroin and usually stronger than that which is available from an illegal drug dealer.  If we follow the logic of the chemical hook, the person prescribed a narcotic for pain for a reasonable length of time should become an addict.

But that is simply not the case. A great many studies have found that this logic does not necessarily follow and posit that this is because people with happy, fulfilling lives in which they feel valued do not become addicted.  It is a theory that has been borne out by the fact that, despite 20% of American soldiers in the Vietnam war used heroin heavily while in combat situations, 95% of those who returned home simply stopped because their surroundings and situation had changed.  No longer were they fighting for their lives in a foreign land with little hope and no joy, but they were now surrounded by loved ones, feeling valued and with a life worth living.

So, while drugs do have a chemical impact on the brain, and that can trigger a person’s addiction, it is not entirely cut and dry, and treating addiction effectively it is not just about keeping the user away from the object of her or his dependence.  The real work begins after detoxification when the underlying issues, the ‘addiction’ needs to be addressed and recovery capital built in and around the addict.


At Broadway Lodge we do not spend time and energy dwelling on the causes of addiction; we are interested in following research and debating the issues, and we are keen to keep abreast of and participate in the discussions about addiction and treatment, but instead of being distracted by the arguments, we apply a tried-and-tested treatment and recovery model that provides patients with a platform for a lifetime of recovery and freedom.

Our approach to addiction is holistic. We treat the whole person, initially detoxing a patient to  enable them to recover physically, then focusing first on a person’s deep understanding of their powerlessness in the face of their addiction.  We then concentrate on building for recovery by working the other 11 steps of the 12-step programme.

By this means we support patients to reach deep into their own psyche, pull out the warrior and build resilience, self-respect, self-worth, and a sense of purpose and belonging that can sustain them in a permanent growth path for the rest of their lives.

The12-steps are a simple formula for living that supports individuals to move beyond enslavement to addiction and towards discovery and exploration of their true nature and uniqueness.

We cheer on our heroes as they leave behind their mistaken beliefs about themselves, transcend their dependency, and begin the process of discovering the magnificence and power of who they truly are.

If you believe you or somebody you love wants or needs treatment for addiction, get in touch with us today.