The transition to adulthood and post-secondary education is a good time to start experimenting with new substances, games, technology, online shopping and more. There are many possibilities that can provide an interesting escape to quickly reduce stress or experience pleasure in the present moment.

Addictive behaviours aren’t always harmful and can even be a temporary and effective solution in certain situations. However, it’s important to keep an eye open to minimize your risk of developing an addiction by knowing how to recognize it, or substance abuse, to the point of harming your life and health. 

WHAT IS AN ADDICTION? 

Addiction means feeling the need to consume something or perform an action without being able to control oneself, despite the inconvenience. Let’s take a look at the addiction cycle in the illustration below.  

When we experience a difficult situation or encounter a problem, an uncomfortable emotion can generate the urge to use a substance or engage in a specific behaviour to reduce suffering. In doing so, the body is soothed, and the brain produces dopamine, also known as the pleasure molecule. It’s at this point, too, that a change occurs in the reward system: the brain registers that the solution put in place has been effective in warding off uncomfortable emotions. However, this state of calm is temporary and can quickly give way to feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame. Then, as you’ll have guessed… the cycle starts all over again!.

Image illustrating the addiction cycle as described in the text.

It’s also important to understand that a tolerance threshold may develop. In this case, the amount of substance will have to be increased or the behaviour repeated more frequently to produce the same dose of dopamine and avoid physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. 

Here are the consequences that can be observed in a person with an addiction:  

  • They abandon their usual activities. 
  • They feel depressed or irritable when they can’t fulfill their need. 
  • They isolate themselves from those around them or lie to them about their substance use.  
  • Their lifestyle is affected on a daily basis. 
  • They have financial problems linked to their consumption. 

HYPERCONNECTIVITY OR CYBERADDICTION?  

Hyperconnectivity is overexposure to screens and excessive, impulsive use (more than 4 hours/day) of electronic devices linked to the Internet or social networks. High levels of online activity don’t necessarily mean cyberaddiction, but they can lead to it.   

Cyberaddiction is defined as the inability to control one’s screen time, and is often accompanied by depressive symptoms, exhaustion, and isolation. This includes, for example, video games, social media, and chat applications. A person who has difficulty disconnecting to the point of putting their virtual life ahead of their real life may be suffering from cyberaddiction. 

PSYCHOSTIMULANTS  

Ritalin, Vyvanse, Adderall… these psychostimulants are normally prescribed for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but in recent years we’ve noticed a rise in the popularity of this medication among students without a diagnosis. The desired goal? Without going overboard, it’s important to remember that the use of psychostimulants carries health risks. It can cause anxiety, strong addiction and even lead to major health problems: hypertension, psychotic episodes, heart attack, stroke, etc. Be cautious!  

WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOU SUFFER FROM ADDICTION? 

Acknowledging your addiction, or at least questioning your behaviour, is a very important first step.  

Secondly, it’s often unavoidable to seek help. It’s not easy to change addictive behaviour, and support is usually needed for a number of reasons.  

  • Depending on the substance and the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, it’s not advisable to stop consuming overnight. Discontinuation must be planned. 
  • Substance use may be a symptom of a deeper problem or malaise that needs to be addressed to treat the addiction.  You’ll probably have to take concrete action on yourself or your environment to bring about a change in your consumption habits.
  • It may take more than one attempt to break the addiction cycle. But don’t be discouraged, every little step counts and will help you to regain your self-confidence and self-esteem. 

If you feel like it, take a few minutes to listen to this video where we explain it all in a humorous tone!

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References

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Gouvernement du Canada. (2023) À propos de la consommation de substances

Institut universitaire sur les dépendances. (2021) Dépendances et jeunesse

Portage. Le cycle de la dépendance…et comment en sortir!

Respire. Tu as le dernier mot. (2023)  Distinguer l’hyperconnectivité et la cyberdépendance

Tout le monde a des bas. (2021) 5 idées à déconstruire sur les dépendances

Credits

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Illustrations : Mario Fontaine

Contribution to the article : Isabelle Queval, psychologist

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