Addiction, a physical and psychological illness, is characterised by the inability to control the repeated and harmful use of a substance or process. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, love, shopping, gaming, eating, work and exercise – these can all be mood-altering and addictive, but what fuels addiction cravings?Beneath all addictions cravings, there are physical and psychological processes going on. Compulsions to use can be unconscious or conscious. In this blog, we’ll unpick some of the most common psychological beliefs that lie beneath addiction cravings – the 5 big lies that addiction tells to keep people hooked.
Addiction Cravings – The False Beliefs that Drive Addictive Behaviours
Lie number 1: You need your addiction to reduce physical pain
If you suffer from chronic pain or you have a serious injury, disability or illness that causes bodily pain, understandably you want relief. This is human nature – most people want to be free from physical discomfort, or at least reduce pain to a level where they can function day-to-day. Addiction cravings can latch on to this primal need, particularly with substances that have analgesic effects but also process addictions too.
For some people, pain is an infrequent distraction or mild annoyance – it’s manageable when it occurs because it doesn’t get in the way of life. For many others, however, pain is chronic and life-limiting. There are also people who have a pathological fear of pain – agliophobia, where even the idea of pain causes mental and physical suffering.
Physical pain is very difficult to measure clinically. There isn’t a definitive test that can objectively determine the level of pain you’re in, as compared to another person. Your experience of pain is influenced by many factors like your physical health, mental health and past experiences. For this reason, every individual has a unique relationship to physical pain, including how you respond when pain strikes.
Seeking relief from physical pain is one of the main reasons why people get addicted, particularly to prescription drugs, street drugs or alcohol, which have analgesic effects. For example, opioids have been routinely prescribed for decades in hospitals and by family doctors, to provide pain relief after operations, in childbirth, to treat injuries and to manage debilitating conditions such as back pain or nerve pain. They can be very effective for short term pain relief.
However, patients aren’t always informed about the addictive nature of opioids and other prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines. Many medications are not suitable at all for long-term pain management, as patients quickly develop tolerance, needing more of the drug to achieve the same effect.
With long term use, drugs can fail to treat. Then patients are faced with two sources of physical pain – their original health issue and the significant physical discomfort of addiction withdrawal. This can be mild to extreme physical pain (including flu-like symptoms, muscle soreness and weakness, migraines, sickness and more).
Even with process addictions, where no substance is ingested into the body, people can still develop a psychological association between addiction and pain relief. A person who is addicted to sex, for example, may associate the intensity of sex with physical pain relief. A gambler can become so preoccupied with fixed-odds betting terminals that he temporarily forgets his back pain when playing. A love addict may experience analgesic effects, whilst fantasising about a desired partner.
No matter what the substance or process, the cruellest trick of addiction is that the pain always comes back and typically it gets worse without effective addiction treatment. There may be a temporary escape in the addictive high but there is always a sting in the tail.
Lie number 2: Your addiction gives you self-confidence
Your addiction is your self-assurance or poise – you can’t cope without it because you feel vulnerable or afraid – or so your addiction cravings tell you. This is a very common reason why people get addicted and can’t stop.
For example, you may drink addictively because you believe that alcohol equals ‘Dutch courage’. You might equate sex with power or buying expensive goods with status. You might believe that extreme thinness denotes control or relentless working means high achievement.
It’s one of the most common traps within addiction cravings – the false belief that the addiction gives you power or certainty. Sadly, this is always untrue – the very nature of dependence is that it systemically destroys any you have confidence in your natural abilities.
One of the keys to addiction recovery is understanding and reframing vulnerability. If you begin to equate vulnerability with courage rather than weakness, you will cope much better with fear and self-doubt.
Lie number 3: Without your addiction, life will be boring
Let’s say you’ve used cocaine for five years – every great night out you’ve had, cocaine has been involved. Yes, there have been consequences too and they’re stacking up now but your addiction cravings tell you that taking cocaine equals having fun. Perhaps your best friends or your romantic partner use cocaine? How can you hope to enjoy their company, if you stop using drugs?
In addiction, life does become centred around using – habits turn into compulsions, cravings become so overwhelming that even when you’re not using, you’re thinking about the next time you can.
The truth is this, your life will be different in addiction recovery. It won’t be boring unless that’s how you want it to be! Most people’s experience is that their life opens up in recovery. Their physical health improves. Their mental outlook transforms. New opportunities come their way. Choices multiply. The freedom to say yes to positive experiences (and say no to negative ones) will enhance your enjoyment, not limit it.
Lie number 4: Without your addiction, life isn’t worth living
This is a really tragic aspect to addiction, often very apparent when people have been addicted for many years or decades. Addiction has taken away so much over the years – friends, relationships, health, money, jobs, self-respect – that there appears to be nothing left, except addiction itself.
However, feelings like this can manifest in the early stages of addiction too, especially when people are using drugs as a mean to cope with a mental illness. In this case, it may feel like addiction is the only thing that is keeping you going. It takes the edge of terrible mental suffering. It feels like the only safe place or the only way to escape you have.
Addiction can be a cruel disease. It sets up very convincing cravings, which can strike very unexpectedly and profoundly affect your wellbeing. If you feel like this now, please contact your GP or an addiction expert, such as our advisers, for help.
Lie number 5: You’ll stop your addiction if <> happens
This lie centres around the false belief that you will have complete control over your addiction in a future scenario. It could be an unwanted event, such as overdosing drink-driving, having an accident or contracting an STD – you tell yourself you will stop immediately if anything like that happened. Alternatively, it could be a positive future event, such as having a baby, getting a new job, turning 40 or graduating from university.
Essentially, you’re bargaining with yourself. You’re setting a time limit to your addiction but equally, you’re saying ‘I can’t stop now’. This can be a very obvious or subtle thought process. You may not even be aware it’s going on. It often begins when you’ve noticed there are consequences to addiction and you’re conflicted, because addiction cravings are still very convincing.
Though significant life events can be the catalyst for people overcoming their addiction, they are not the means by which to recover and stay free from addiction. You’re most likely to succeed with a combination of addiction treatment and ongoing support, which help you navigate the myriad changes that take place in recovery.