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Overview of Addictive Substances and Activities

In this overview I have set out to explain a little about the nature of addictive substances and in particular about the process addictions, the ones that involve activities rather than chemicals.

There are hundreds of these so I have only listed a few of the most common. I have included a number of quotes from other writers and acknowledge these. In particular I thank my ex-wife and professional colleague, Rosamond Nutting for permission to use extracts from her notes on addictions.


Alcohol is a medication that blocks painful or intolerable reality. It is well known for its ability to convince us that we are functioning better, communicating better, singing better, driving better or doing almost anything better than ever, when, in fact, our skills in these areas are seriously diminished.

Alcohol causes us to let our guard down so we are more likely to release parts of our personality that are normally trapped or caged by one-above selves, or as most people would say ‘releasing inhibitions’. For one person this can be stimulating, for another depressing.

People locked in the addictive cycle based on alcohol are particularly prone to denial and unawareness. As a result, children who grow up in families where one or both parents are dependent on alcohol are particularly likely to suffer emotional damage, as well as physical and sometimes sexual abuse. They experience so many problems as children that more than sixty percent of all people in therapy report problems connected to alcohol during their childhood or within their family of origin.


Smoking is the most common addictive cycle. It contributes directly or indirectly to over 20 percent of all deaths and is said to kill more people than all other drugs combined. Current research also pinpoints nicotine as a substance that interacts with other addictive and compulsive behaviours, including overuse of alcohol, caffeine, work addiction, gambling, food and sex addiction, making these all more severe and harder to deal with.

Smokers who are also in a second addictive cycle not only show a lower success rate in giving up smoking but are more likely to relapse back into their other addictions. This is called an ‘addictive interaction’.

Nicotine moderates both strong feelings and depression, it can numb or mask strong reactions and reduce depression. It can stimulate or calm.

"Shallow puffs increase alertness since low doses of nicotine facilitate the release of acetylcholine, a powerful stimulant. Deep drags are relaxing since higher doses of nicotine block the flow of acetylcholine. So just by changing the style of puffing a smoker can pep up or calm down, consistently numb and alter their mood level to match the moment. Who could ask for more in one drug? It is a stimulant for the weary and a tranquilliser for the anxious, depending on how the drug is inhaled."

from ‘Nicotine and the Addiction Interaction Disorder’ by Elizabeth Hanson Hoffinan, Ph.D. and Christopher D. Hoffinan, M.S.W., L.S.W., A.C.S.W.

Nicotine suppresses feelings

Strong feelings often trigger the need for a smoke. Nicotine calms strong emotions including those that we should be feeling. However research also shows that people who give up smoking  actually feel less fear, guilt or shame about other aspects of their lives after a relatively short recovery period.

Nicotine addiction may mask other addictions, many heavy smokers have problems with alcohol. Three-quarters of people in alcohol and narcotic drug cycles are also heavy smokers.

This combination of nicotine and other mood altering substances including alcohol and caffeine has a powerful reinforcing effect or ‘addiction interaction’.

"The neurochemical interaction between depression, nicotine and other addictions is the subject of current research involving dopamine and other neurotransmitters. This approach holds much promise and will probably revolutionize the entire area of addiction and provide support for the Carnes’ model of addiction interaction disorder."

from ‘Nicotine and the Addiction Interaction Disorder’ by Elizabeth Hanson Hoffinan, Ph.D. and Christopher D. Hoffinan, M.S.W., L.S.W., A.C.S.W.

Alternating one addiction with another is characteristic of addiction interaction. Nicotine numbs the shame associated with other addictive binges which can increase the likelihood of binges on other addictive activities.

Nicotine and food

Smokers in early recovery complain of food cravings that often lead to addictive eating. Nicotine affects insulin production, and it takes several months for insulin levels to settle down which explains why people giving up smoking have strong and erratic cravings for different foods and tend to overeat.

Narcotics, other illegal drugs and legally available prescription drugs

Addictive drugs block reality. Any substance that creates an altered mood and which the user believes ‘makes’ them happier or improves their self-esteem is likely to become part of an addictive cycle. Whether it is legal or not has little to do with the nature of the addictive cycle. What is obvious is that passing laws has little real effect on addictions.

Most of what I have written above about nicotine and alcohol applies here, but in addition new problems arise with the use of illegal substances. Users have to keep a constant eye on maintaining their supply and finding ways to pay for it. This usually means involvement in some form of dishonesty. My experiences with heroin users leads me to believe that they are incredibly accomplished manipulators in terms of their ability to convince others that they are ‘off the habit’ when they are still using. They are equally skilled in the area of borrowing money, making promises to repay which sound incredibly believable but seldom come true.

Eating Disorders - (from Rosamond Nutting’s notes - reproduced with permission)

Eating disorders include:

· an obsession with eating or the not eating

· obsession with dieting, extending to over exercising or excessive concern about body shape and health in general

People with eating disorders almost always report that these obsessions increase when they are stressed, and subside when they are calm. It is obvious that most eating problems are emotionally driven and cannot be solved by dieting. Specific eating disorders include overeating, anorexia and bulimia.


Overeating is about eating for emotional reasons including the need to bury overwhelming feelings of pain or fear. Another reason can be the need to become sexually undesirable as in the case of a sexually abused child.


Bulimia is binge eating followed by vomiting, the use of laxatives, diuretics, or over-exercising. People also experience extreme shame during a bingeing episode, however vomiting relieves this and may even produce a feeling of euphoria. Many bulimics say that vomiting also gives them a sense of throwing up negative feelings, mostly shame.


Anorexia is an obsession with being thin as a result of families and society placing a too heavy emphasis on looking ‘thin’ It is particularly damaging to a teenager if her family tease her for being ‘fat’. To deal with this she has to create an anorexic addictive cycle.

Families of people with anorexia are often very shut-down emotionally and have great difficulty expressing feelings.

Other families place high expectations on their children to be perfect. This is the perfect ‘set-up’ for the development of an anorexic addictive cycle especially if the parents are controlling or domineering. The child associates thin with being perfect and over-does the process to gain love (and later on to compensate for not being loved.)


Workaholism is described as the ‘respectable addiction’ because it so socially acceptable in our society.

However, the workaholic addictive cycle is the same as any other addictive self. Excessive work medicates emotional pain and gives a false sense of self-esteem. Because the workaholic is hardly ever home (even when he or she is home they are still always busy) no one in the family ever gets to know who that person is, so no one is able to experience any intimacy with them.

A child needs to experience closeness in their relationship with their parents in order to learn about intimacy. The children of a workaholic grow up feeling abandoned and rejected, never able to experience or learn about being close. Often when the children leave home and the workaholic parent retires, a terrible void is experienced by that parent and the cry is often ‘I never knew my children’. The children, on the other hand often respond ‘No one in our family ever taught me how to be close’.


The gambling addictive cycle uses the thrill of gambling to medicate emotional pain and compensate for low self-esteem. The thrill of winning is exceptionally powerful, often described by recovering gamblers as a ‘... sense of being a God’. Research suggests that this feeling is helped by the release of morphine like chemicals in the brain, but only when the gambler is winning. This of course is a perfect set up for the development of repetitive and compulsive gambling

While they are winning, the gambler forgets their feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth and obsess on ‘getting that win’ in order to keep on medicating.

Obsessive gamblers eventually lose. First they lose their judgement and ability to face reality. Then they lose their money, their partners, their children, their jobs and their homes.

Debting & Spending

Debtors and spender ‘selves’ get a high by spending money hence the term ‘shop-aholic’. To support their need for a high, they run up huge debts. Interestingly they also seem to get a high from taking out loans.

Computer and Internet Addiction

Computer-holic ‘selves’ take over and spend too much of the person’s leisure time glued to a computer at the expense of the person and their families. While they are concentrating on the computer they take the focus off their feelings and low self-esteem.

The distance created over time allows that person to become more and more isolated from their family (particularly their children), who in turn also withdraw as a form of self protection learned from the isolating parent.

Many computer-holic ‘selves’ link up with and carry out emotional and, or sexual interactions with other people’s computer-holic ‘selves’ on the net. This can lead to a breakdown in normal face to face family relationships.

Love Addiction

"Love addicts assign too much time, attention and value above themselves to any person they are in a relationship with. This is coupled with unrealistic expectations for unconditional, positive regard." Pia Mellody

Love addicts can be male or female adults who have an overwhelming fear of being abandoned and rejected. So when they are in a relationship, they tend to be needy and clingy, engulfing and smothering of their partner.

The set up for the development of a love addicted addictive cycle is usually a traumatic childhood event around one incident or several incidents of abandonment and/or neglect. This trauma causes the person, from then on, to avoid abandonment and rejection for the rest of their lives. The ‘selves’ that evolve from such an experience will go to extraordinary lengths to help the person avoid being abandoned or rejected.

When the love addicted addictive cycle meets a possible partner for the first time, they (love addicts) create a fantasy around that person and place all kinds of unrealistic expectations on them through the love addict’s distorted reality.

To make matters worse for them, love addicted ‘selves’ are usually attracted to people who have a fear of intimacy and are likely to shun the love addicted behaviour. This then tends to panic the love addicted addictive cycle who becomes even more needy, clingy, engulfing and smothering.

When the love addicted person increases their neediness, their partner may abandon them or threaten them with abandonment and rejection out of their own fears of intimacy. This sends the love addicted person into violent mental derangement and agitation, turmoil and hysteria. They experience high intensity fear, panic, pain, drama and game-playing.

Also, they may act out obsessive plans as to how they are going to get their partner back or how they are going to get even with them. The love addicted person may stalk the object of their fantasy for a long time after the relationship has finished.

Sex Addiction (special page) see link at the foot of this page

Avoiding addictive cycles

The avoiding addictive cycle on the other hand experiences great fears of intimacy. These ‘selves’ developed from a fear of being engulfed, smothered, and enmeshed in their childhood. They are usually the product of a family where mother or father or both of them were controlling, too close and clingy.

Avoiding ‘selves’ tend to be more comfortable in low key, long distant relationships where they do not feel threatened by closeness. The person who allows their avoiding ‘selves’ to control their lives have great difficulty in being able to commit to a long term or life long relationship.

Religious Addiction

To make them feel better and take their minds off what is really happening in their lives, religious addicted ‘selves’ medicate on religion. These people are most likely to use their addicted ‘selves’ to control others. This addictive cycle obsesses on religious issues because it gives the person a false sense of being righteous and better than other people. Most religious addicted ‘selves’ take on a false aura of ‘doing good works’ and ‘saving souls’ in an effort to hide the person’s underlying shame.

John Bradshaw says of religious addiction: ..........Religious addiction may be the most pernicious of all addictions because it is so hard for the person to break his or her denial. How can anything be wrong with loving God and giving your life for good works and service to mankind’.

The family of the religious addicted person may suffer greatly. Typically they are shame-based, controlled and dysfunctional. The children are typically abandoned, rejected and neglected.


Raging behaviour is usually not about anger. It is a combination of pain, fear and shame. It does involve yelling, screaming and exploding into physical violence, and children exposed to a raging parent are traumatised by the experience.  Sometimes the rage-aholic ‘self’ experiences little or no memory of their acting out behaviour. When questioned after a raging episode, the person has very little knowledge of what they have done.

The raging addictive cycle is an addictive cycle as it medicates the raging person giving them an adrenalin  ‘high’ and taking them out of their painful feelings. This ‘high’ can be felt by the raging person for some time after the event. However, this raging ‘self’ has the potential to destroy relationships and families. Without psychological help, the children of a raging parent can suffer psychologically for the rest of their lives.

Other Facts About Addictive ‘Cycles’:

· An addictive cycle can be replaced by another medication and in turn a new addictive cycle (e.g. the person who separates from their alcoholic addictive cycle and notices a week later that they are involved in a food bingeing cycle.

· Many people have one or two secondary medications waiting in the wings ready to be taken up should the source of their primary medication be blocked or restricted or become 'cured' by treatment or joining a twelve step group.

· Recovery involves awareness - learning to identify addictive patterns of behaviour and cycles as soon as they begin to take control.

· Working a twelve step program can be extremely beneficial to recovery over time. For some people this program is their only hope of recovery.

See also

Understanding Addictive cycles - over medication and vulnerability

Inner selves and addictive Cycles

The path and the holes - a story about recovery from addictions

Sex addiction

 Remember to H-A-L-T

Copyright © John Nutting 1996 - - 2009  and   ©   GROWING AWARENESS   All rights reserved World Wide  

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