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Updated: Aug 18, 2021

In the collective imagination, we tend to associate addiction with the use of drugs and the power of substances over our brain.

Gabor Mate, a Canadian doctor with over a decades of experience in the field of drug addiction, offers us a vision of addiction that might have to do with us "normal" and "sober" people.

The invisible mechanism that leads a person to become a drug addict is the same that leads another person to become addicted to gambling, sex, shopping, work, or sports.

Some of these dependencies are accepted and respected in society's eyes and create minor damage, but the inner mechanisms are the same.


The word addiction comes from the Latin root "Addicere," representing a habit or a harmless interest.

In previous centuries, addiction referred to an activity that we had a passion for.

Dr. Matè defines dependence as behavior that gives us pleasure or temporary relief, over which we have no control, and we feel compelled to persist despite the negative impact it has on our own lives and that of others.

It is not the substance or an activity that makes us dependent, but something else within us.

For instance, not all those who use alcohol become alcoholics; the same goes for gambling.

It is significant the case of a part of American soldiers during the Vietnam War who regularly used heroin. After returning home, the percentage of those who stopped using it was 95%.

The war veteran is one of the cases that demonstrate that heroin consumption doesn't derive from the substance itself but from the need that some people have in facing a specific environment that triggers intense discomfort.


Some experts define addiction as a "chronic neurobiological disease" since all addictions to drugs or abnormal behaviors share the same neuronal and chemical circuits in the brain.

However, it is essential not to fall into the trap of reducing addiction to a single neuronal chemical action.

Although there are cases of people who become addicted to a substance after taking it only a few times, the cause of addictions does not lie in the power that drugs have on the human brain.

Other reasons make some people vulnerable to addiction.

According to Dr. Matè, addiction has a purpose in people's lives: it gives comfort, distracts from pain, reduces stress.

Dr. Mate himself speaks of his addiction to work: an admirable addiction in the eyes of society, which allowed him to help many people, but which hurt his private life, distancing him from his family.

In short, we can conclude that drugs do not necessarily make us addicted in the same way that food does not make us compulsive eaters.


Opioid receptors play a fundamental role in developing addictions and, more specifically, endorphins: those molecules have an action similar to morphine and other opiate substances.

Endorphins are considered the molecules of emotions, and in children, contact with parents stimulates the natural release of these molecules.

Children who have suffered from emotional deprivation in the process of growing up, later in their life, may try to seek compensation through various types of activities or the use of drugs that allow the release of endorphins in the brain.

The same goes for those with a reduced number of dopamine receptors: they will be more likely to substances or activities that increase their level.

Food increases dopamine levels by 50%, sex by 100%, but they are nothing compared to cocaine, which even triples the level.

The first difficult or negative experiences during childhood lead to the disappearance of these positive hormones but generate a dangerous overload of other hormones, particularly the cortisol hormone caused by stressful situations.

"Maternal contact modify the infant's neurobiology". - John Bowlby


We can find in addictions a tendency: a focus on something that comes from the outside, which can be physical or emotional.

This need derives from a lack of self-regulation, which is the inability to maintain stability in the internal emotional atmosphere.

No one is born with this capacity for internal regulation, and the infant is entirely dependent on the adult in this.

Those who do not receive it during childhood, in adulthood must rely on some external supports to cope with their anxiety or discomfort.

Some types of self-regulation can also be "healthy," for example, an excessive focus on physical exercise, but they remain activities driven by an internal imbalance.


If we do not want to fall into the trap of blaming, either towards ourselves and towards others, it will be essential to research the causes of our addiction and ask ourselves what are the benefits of this activity, in what it has helped us.

In many cases, it is not a lack of willpower or character weakness but a need to escape emotional pain.


If we want to integrate our particular "addiction," we need to go through a personal psychological maturation.

We need to develop a sense of self different from the internal emotional experience, without denying it, but learning not to identify with it.

A poorly differentiated personality is easily overwhelmed by their own emotions and absorbs others' anxiety, thus generating anxiety about themselves.

This psychological maturation passes through the understanding and acceptance of our past so that we can integrate it and no longer be its victims.


The most crucial mental activity for the development of emotional regulation is the observation of oneself.

If we look more closely at the functions of the mind, we can observe two types of mental functions:


-Confused automatic process which can be conscious, semi-conscious, or mechanical.

This last automatic process is the one that directs our emotional states and our behaviors.

As defined today, mindfulness is the key to unlocking the mental patterns that keep the brain chained to a particular addiction. Conscious observation of our mind gradually allows us to let go of our old habits. Scientific research on mindfulness has shown that this awareness can positively change the brain's physiology in which these thoughts originated.

If you have read this far, you will have realized that not all addictions are unhealthy; indeed, some have allowed us to become who we are.

For our healthier addictions, the basic idea is not to eliminate them but to establish a different, healthy relationship, which passes through a more profound knowledge of ourselves.

Recommend reading:

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (2008) - Gabor Maté

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