Most of us associate addiction with excessive drug or alcohol use. These forms of addiction are often referred to as chemical dependency. When a person is addicted to substances, key changes have occurred within the functioning of the central nervous system (CNS), the brain’s chemistry, and even the brain’s size. As a result of these alterations, stopping “cold turkey” often leads to widespread physiological distress. So how can addiction possibly apply to the Internet? In a world in which people constantly carry Internet-connected devices with them and use these devices all of the time, Internet addiction is fast becoming a reality. Worse still, it affects people at every age and stage of life. Internet addicts can be eight years old or 80. What’s common among them is that they cannot stop or limit their Internet use without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Understanding the Brain’s Reward Pathway and Its Role in Addiction
People use addictive substances or engage in addictive behaviors simply because doing so feels good. With drugs and alcohol, using these substances instantly triggers the release of “feel good” chemicals or neurotransmitters. These chemicals are normally and naturally produced and released as a means for rewarding positive and ultimately beneficial behaviors. For instance, you might get a dopamine rush following a rigorous workout. Other neurotransmitters might be released in response to healthy social engagement, choosing to eat a salad for lunch rather than an ice cream cone, or doing something good for others. When the brain’s reward system is working effectively, people are being motivated to repeat beneficial behaviors via the release of “feel good” chemicals.
Reconditioning the Reward Pathway Creates the Conditions for Addiction
The path to addiction is found when the production and release of neurotransmitters are being manipulated by an outside agent. Rather than using hard liquor, opiates, tobacco, or other chemical substances to trigger neurotransmitters, some people are using the Internet.
The Internet promises instant gratification, immersive distractions, and even alternate realities that remove people entirely from the stressors of real life. Using the Internet makes some people feel relaxed and euphoric, and it does so by manipulating the brain’s reward pathway.
Much like substance use disorder and alcohol use disorder, Internet addiction can actually wear the reward pathway out, alter the functioning of the brain’s reward pathway, and associate unhealthy overuse with beneficial behaviors. When the Internet is taken away, much like any other addict, an addicted person will feel depressed, angry, frustrated, unmotivated, and unsure. These are just a few of the many common signs of Internet addiction and withdrawal.
Comorbidities and Internet Addiction
There’s also the surprising addition of comorbidities that can make Internet addiction diagnosis and treatment all the more challenging. Given the relatively recent advent of the Internet, much is still not understood about Internet addiction. This is an addictive mechanism that’s constantly changing, and one that’s becoming increasingly more pervasive with each new web-connected innovation and service. Are people with general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, or other secondary mental health issues at greater risk?
And what of sexual addiction? Does the repeated viewing of online pornographic materials qualify as Internet addiction or sexual addiction? When a person suffers from both, can the same treatment modalities and recommendations be used?
Strategies for Treating Internet Addiction
Ignoring the symptoms of an addict in withdrawal is hardly a beneficial or ethical form of treatment. Much like people detoxing from drugs or alcohol, Internet addicts can experience significant discomfort when their “drug of choice” is taken away. Moreover, given the changes that have occurred across the brain’s reward pathway, this isn’t merely perceived discomfort; it’s genuine, legitimate, and difficult to navigate without intervention. For healthcare professionals, finding the right interventions for individual needs is key to preventing total relapse.
One of the biggest challenges of treating addiction to the Internet is the fact that total cessation is rarely an option. The Internet is both pervasive and essential. People have to use it from time to time. When treating alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, you certainly wouldn’t tell a patient to moderate their alcohol or drug use. Addiction treatment for these things requires total, lifelong abstinence, and ongoing strategies for preventing relapse. With Internet addiction, successful intervention often entails encouraging people to find new and more beneficial ways of triggering their reward pathway, whether by engaging in physical exercise or taking advantage of naturally relaxing stimuli such as the scented candles and soothing soaps offered by Avidity Medical Scentations. Sign up now for product notifications to learn when the candles and soaps will be available. Follow our blog to learn more about common health issues and to stay up to date on the latest news in healthcare.