Tuesday, December 17, 2013

addiction and biology

What do you think, from a professional standpoint, of the suggestion that alcoholism is not a biological proclivity (as it is popularly portrayed) but rather a character flaw? If it were a biological matter, how would anyone be able to stop?

What a timely question.  I have quite a few clients struggling with addiction right now (not that we aren't all struggling addicts to some degree).  They have different proclivities (food, gambling, alcohol, work) but they what they all have in common is that they are in search of a fix for hard-to-deal-with feelings and get hooked on what works for them. 

You need two things, as far as I can tell, for an addiction to develop: a problem and a short-term solution that fixes it.  We are all prone to the former (some more prone than others, depending on biology, psychology, up-bringing and, of course, stress).  The solution depends on all of the above, but there is certainly a strong link to biology.  Chemistry regulates our emotions, and vice versa.  Some chemicals even regulate our choice of addiction.  Did you know that people who take L-DOPA, i.e. for Parkinson's, tend to develop gambling addictions?

How is anyone able to stop?  Some stop and it’s no big deal.  Some have to struggle like hell against their “proclivity”. 

I think this too is largely determined by biology.  Some people are born addicted to their mother’s habits.  That is no “character flaw”.  It seems to me that the only way to quit an addiction is to go against the grain of what you want to do on a more impulsive level, for whatever reason you’re doing it, and stop and do something else instead, even if this initially means, as I think it does for many people, doing nothing at all, feeling the urge and letting it pass.

The key, for many, is to have a goal, something that motivates you to look beyond the immediate and short-term fix, sometimes it's a matter of one biological urge dominating another.

Is a successful quit the result of strength of character, timing, luck or biology, divine intervention or allowing the Divine to intervene on our behalf, or a chicken-egg thing?  I would have to say "yes" to all of the above :)


  1. Mmmm...chocolate cake...must resist...can't think of anythng else now...thanks a lot!

  2. I find the concept of a short term fix for a problem quite revealing of how someone may develop an eating disorder. Thinking of my own experience with anorexia, I definitely agree that I was/am looking for a way to solve some inner turmoil/problem and the empowerment I felt from observing my body change from restricting my diet served as a short term reinforcer. This would be similar to how someone may turn to substance or like you mentioned in your blog, even work, to provide that short term gratification for a deeply rooted problem. Also, I enjoyed your suggestion on how to curb one's addiction. I learnt in a health psychology class this semester that in addition to having a goal to kick a bad health habit that one should add implementation intentions like if-then statements to promote successful health behavior change.