Addiction is the continued use of a person, activity or substance in order to escape from negative feelings, despite experiencing negative consequences as a result of use. These behaviors develop as a last-ditch effort to survive unbearable misery or physical pain. All of your other coping skills have been overwhelmed, yet, somewhere, deep inside, you do not want to die. You just have to make the pain stop. What causes this pain differs for everyone. What seems to be the same is that, over time, you have come to believe that the addiction is your best friend. It stops the pain when nothing else can. It never abandons you. It never judges you or adds to your stress. (Or, at least it seems that way.)
Addictions are a solution to a problem, a bad solution, but a solution. For that reason, you probably have substitute or “back up” addictions. When you cannot access your addiction of choice, you probably use something else to help you escape, or lash out at anyone or anything that stands between you and your addiction. You can be addicted to just about anything that produces pleasure or distracts you. While it is easy to see the connection between using drugs or alcohol and feeling better, other addictive behaviors like obsessing over a person, exercise, shopping or gambling can also not only distract your mind, but also usually has a pleasurable result.
Addictions (even behavioral ones) also mess with your brain chemistry. Whatever it is that you are doing to get the rush/relief/escape causes your brain to rapidly burn through happy chemicals. While it feels great at the moment, you are using up your reserves. At a certain point, your happy chemicals run out and the only way to get the rush is through the addiction. But wait…at a certain point that does not even work anymore, so you start doing riskier things or using harder drugs, or both—sometimes just to feel normal. While this is a very oversimplified explanation of what is happening during the addiction process, you can see that a large part of recovery is allowing your brain to rest, recover and rebalance. This process takes anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years depending on the amount of damage. The great news is that your brain (and body) can recover.
As a side note, some people actually begin their addiction when something happens to trigger a mental health issue. All of the same happy chemicals that get mucked up in addiction are the ones that can go wonky and cause things like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. When you feel bad, you want relief, so you may have self-medicated with your addiction. This is why it is important to not only address the addiction and coping behaviors, but also make sure you are addressing any mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, grief, anger or schizophrenia.