Addiction is way more than a bad habit. "It's an actual rewiring of the brain," explains psychologist David Shurtleff, Ph.D. It floods the brain with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, a chemical that helps regulate emotion and—most important—pleasure. Repeated addictive behavior fools the brain into thinking those sky-high dopamine levels are normal and into devoting more and more resources to maintaining that new normal (enter a cascade of powerful cravings).
As the brain pursues higher highs, its cognitive abilities sink. Even when sober, the addicted mind can't think clearly. Addictions can also deeply affect a person's memory system, embedding in it strong triggers—a marital fight, stress at work—that prompt a relapse even after a person has been recovered for years.
Why one woman develops a dependency after, say, overindulging in vino and another doesn't is a matter of genetics, environment, and medical mystery. What scientists do know, however, is that brain chemistry has been seriously altered in the addicted woman's head. Here's what that looks like, as explained by Carlton K. Erickson, Ph.D., director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center in the College of Pharmacy at The University of Texas at Austin.
The first sip of booze sends an electrical message—Hey! This feels great!—through the brain's reward pathway.
Destination: the frontal lobe, the noggin's judgment, decision-making, and impulse-control center.
The message is routed through brain nerve cells called neurons. Like a fuse burning on a firecracker, it skips from neuron to neuron by jumping over tiny gaps called synapses.
Each time the message hits synapses in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, it triggers a release of dopamine . . .
. . .which instantly reinforces the original missive. More booze, please!
All of this happens in milliseconds, and when the message hits the frontal lobe, the result is interpreted as a rush of pleasure. However, in addicts (past, present, or future), it becomes garbled along the way. The how and why is hazy, but somewhere along the line the original memo takes a dark turn: Instead of igniting a mild satisfaction, it messes up dopamine release, fires up fierce cravings, and leads to poor decision-making.
The addict's brain is no longer able to apply the brakes, and the addict reaches for another drink. And another. For some addiction-prone women, that now nefarious message can get mangled after just one drink; for others, it could take years (or never ignite). But once it's garbled, the effect may be permanent. !--pagebreak-->
When Danger Sneaks Up on You
Some hard-to-measure addictions can snowball so slowly that by the time you realize you're in trouble, you're already in too deep, says neuroradiologist Louis M. Teresi, M.D. Learn how to ID the signs of dependence and pull yourself back from developing a "soft" addiction to behaviors like obsessively checking e-mail, blogs, or social media.
You find yourself rationalizing or justifying your behavior.
"When you spend time minimizing the consequences of your actions, you're participating in an addictive thought pattern," says Teresi.
You continue your behavior despite negative consequences.
For example, after you get reprimanded for obsessively Facebooking at work, you just have to peek again the second your boss turns her back.
You spend a disproportionate amount of time on a new behavior.
For example, before Twitter entered your life, you used to sleep for a solid eight hours a night. Also, you used to have real friends, not just virtual ones.
If you don't engage in the behavior, you start to feel anxious.
When your anxiety level soars higher than a seven on a scale of one to 10, be especially wary, says Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources in Seattle.
Reverse the Course
Don't try to quit cold turkey.
Doing so may ignite withdrawal too powerful to ignore. The next time you crave a social media check-in, for example, hold off for 15 minutes. The time after that, wait 30 minutes. Practicing delayed gratification can abort addiction behavior, says Jantz. Or, try doing something else instead. Write up a roster of productive behaviors (socializing, exercising, meditating) to turn to when you feel the itch. And recruit a (very honest) friend whom you can call when temptation strikes. Even a 60-second phone call can distract you from unhealthy compulsions.