11 May

I have worked with many people with varying addictions from smoking to food to marijuana. What seems apparent in them all is their sense of guilt and shame for their addiction, and their distinct lack of understanding of the biological processes involved.

Despite popular opinion, people with addictions are not ‘weak-willed’, ‘lazy’ or ‘stubborn’. The addiction is NOT their fault. They are struggling against their own natural instincts to survive. Imagine someone telling you that water is bad for you and that you can never drink again. This is essentially how the body views nicotine and other addictive substances. It feels under threat of survival. Let me explain with an example.

What happens when we need to eat? When the body realises that food levels are low, it releases the hormone dopamine to motivate us to find the resources we need e.g. food. Once we have eaten and satisfied our need, the brain then releases more dopamine to reward us (so we will repeat the action later). More importantly, the dopamine also sends a message to the decision-making part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) to say that we have had something really important for our survival. The pre-frontal cortex responds by sending a message down the limbic system to say,

        ‘This was really important for our survival and gave us a really good reward. Remember this’.

The brain then takes a snapshot of all the environmental and emotional cues so that the next time we are hungry it can search the memory bank to see how to meet that need.

Now, let’s replace ‘food’ in this scenario for nicotine (or other addictions), and that is exactly what is happening in the body. What happens when the body realises nicotine levels are low? The very same process. It releases dopamine to motivate you to find nicotine. It searches the memory banks to see where the best and most rewarding hits for nicotine where and ramps up the cravings until you satisfy the need. Addictions hijack this system because the body believes it is essential for survival. When you try to quit, alarm bells go off and the body increases the motivation for the nicotine (or other addiction), as it feels its very survival is under threat.

So what does this mean?

Addiction, in whatever guise, is a complex issue. We cannot simply blame the person for a lack of will-power. Whatever means you use by which to quit, you also need to re-programme your brain. CBT and hypnotherapy are good methods to do this.

Reference-Simmons, C., (2014) ‘Smoking Cessation’ in A., Jaloba & F., Nicolson (Eds), (2014) The Hypnotherapy Handbook, Sheffield: Helping Handbooks Publishing.

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