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Monday, February 5, 2018 | By Cooper Samp

The first thing to know about addiction is that it is not a choice. Addiction is not a moral failure but a disorder and we should treat it like any other illness – with care and compassion. It is also important to know that addiction does not discriminate. It affects the spectrum of social class and race. Effective treatment is available for those suffering to help recover from this disease.

Addiction is a chronic brain disease that induces compulsive activity, despite health, social and legal consequences. Drug behavior begins by choice, but the likelihood of an individual to turn these behaviors into an addiction depends on their genetic and environmental factors. Ingesting drugs or alcohol activates specific pleasure centers of the brain. These pleasures can be so strong the consumption becomes the primary means of pleasure – ultimately forming an addiction. When treating addiction, it is essential to understand why the user seeks these pleasures and then replace those pleasures with healthier non-addictive alternatives.

Essentially addiction is the compulsive behavior to obtain a feeling of pleasure. Over time, this action begins to develop negative consequences. The short-term pleasures turn into long-term negative effects. Addiction covers a broad spectrum but primarily falls into two categories: Substances and Behavioral. They are both characterized by an intense feeling of emotional need or physical craving. Both symptoms carry many of the same characteristics, but behavioral addictions do not carry the same adverse health effects that drug addictions do.

Drug Addiction

Drugs are substances that create psychological effects when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body. They affect the way the brain communicates and process information. Different drugs affect the body in different ways, but their long-term use will ultimately cause physical changes in the brain. These changes can lead to a substance use disorder.  Stimulants like prescription amphetamines, tobacco or cocaine, stimulate the brain and nervous system, causing increased alertness. Depressants, such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates close activity in the brain and nervous system, inducing relaxation. Hallucinogens like LSD and PCP drastically disrupt the way the brain and nervous system coordinate, causing hallucinations.

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction is also referred to as alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. With an estimated 16.6 million suffering from the disease, it is one of the most common addictions in the United States. An alcohol addiction occurs when regular, excess drinking causes harm or distress.

Types of Problem Drinking

  • Binge Drinking – consuming high amounts of alcohol, between four or five drinks, in a single day
  • Heavy Drinking – Consuming five or more drinks on five different occasions in a single month.
  • Alcohol Abuse – Drinking despite negative consequences
  • Alcohol Dependency –  A physical need for alcohol usually to suppress withdrawal symptoms.
  • Alcohol Use Disorder: Recent term for alcoholism that includes both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency.

Illicit Drug Addiction

Illicit drugs refer to illegal and addictive substances consumed by individuals looking to obtain a high, altered perception of reality or feeling of relaxation and happiness. These drugs create desired short-term disruptions in the brain. These short-term changes in the mind can cause addiction, which eventually leads to undesirable long-term changes in the brain and other vital organs in the body.

Examples of drug addictions:

Prescription Drug Addiction

Prescription drugs are approved drugs used to treat diseases and other medical conditions. Even when a patient uses the medication as prescribed; an addiction can still form. The likelihood of addiction dramatically increases with increasing abuse.

Common Prescription Drug Addictions:

Behavioral Addiction

Addiction is compulsive seeking behavior that creates negative impacts. Addiction is most familiar with substances, but it also applies to specific addictive actions. In fact, behavior addictions can have similar symptoms as substances like cravings, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse.

Typical Behavioral Addictions:

  • Gambling
  • Eating
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Internet
  • Video Games

Co-Occurring Disorders and Multiple Addictions

It is common for individuals to suffer from both an addiction and other mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Mental illness can stem from addiction or vice versa, so treating the mental illness or illnesses that co-occur with the addiction is necessary to address the addiction adequately. An individual can suffer from drug addiction, a mental health disorder, and a behavioral addiction all at the same time.

Examples of Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders include:

Even when dealing with the same substance or behavior, addictions are diverse. Some symptoms can be visible while others may hide, but overall the addiction will cause changes. These changes can be both physical or behavioral. Some of the most apparent signs include neglecting responsibilities such as work and personal relationships.

Tolerance Vs. Addiction

“I require more to feel it”

Tolerance refers to a physical adaptation within the body in which an individual requires a higher amount of the substance or behavioral activity to achieve the desired effect. Tolerance can be a symptom of addiction but does not necessarily mean addiction is present. Tolerance is more common when dealing with substance abuse but can also apply to behavioral addiction.

Physical Dependence Vs. Addiction

“I need it!”

Dependence refers to the physical craving an individual feels to use a substance or perform a behavior to feel normal. Over time, dependence is usually accompanied by tolerance. An individual can be dependent without an addiction as long as the dependence does not cause harm to them or others.

Functioning Addict

“I’m fine”

A functioning addict is someone who struggles with an addiction, but they are still able to function in high capacity in their work and personal life. The negative consequences they face may not be as obvious – such as long-term health problems and financial strains. Due to initial appearances, their addiction may go unnoticed, but despite their functionality, it is crucial to address the habit. Apart from health constraints, addictions stem from underlying causes and without the addressing these issues timely, they can escalate to severe consequences.

Outside of the physical causes of addiction, particular factors can make certain individuals more vulnerable to addiction.

Genetic Factors

Addiction tends to run in the family, but there is no specific “addiction gene.” Having a close family member with addiction does not make a someone inevitably an addict. Certain types of genetic makeups make people more susceptible to addiction. Some people may be more sensitive to impulsive and risky behavior, while others can react psychologically different to a behavior or drug.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are just as influential as genetics. Being involved in an environment of addictive behavior (such as family and friends) will create vulnerability to addiction. Environmental stressors such as trauma and stress can also play a significant role in susceptibility.

Mental Health

Linking to environmental factors, early life traumatic events and stressors can lead to mental illnesses later on in life. Those who suffer from mental illnesses are a higher risk to develop a substance use disorder. Many find their addictions as a way to escape or cope.

Addiction is defined when the behavior starts to become compulsive and have negative consequences. It is important to note that addiction, despite a common misconception, is not limited by prevalence or dependence.


Physical symptoms can vary depending on the substance or behavior. Typically physical symptoms include a loss of energy and ability to focus. Other health problems include blood pressure, heart rate, memory, and a decrease of vital organs such as kidneys and lungs.


Substances can impose such a grip on a person’s life that certain activities they once enjoyed slowly diminish. Users see their high as a more significant enjoyment comparatively, and thus hobbies and interest deteriorate. The motivation for life starts to slip along with relationships with family and friends. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, and desperation are common.


Addictions cause physical damage to the individual’s body and brain. These start to decrease mental health which eventually leads to psychological issues such as memory complications, emotional instability, depression, and anxiety.

As addictions progress, they become a top priority. Addicts start to feed their habits by any means necessary, and multiple aspects of their lives begin to falter at the expense.


The use of money is needed to sustain most addictions. If the individual does not have the necessary reliable income, other financial responsibilities will become secondary – such as rent and food. They may even turn to stealing to support their habit.


Addictions escalate and eventually creep into work responsibilities. They are often performed within the work environment – disabling proper function.

Risky Behavior

Addicts will satisfy their needs by any means necessary. Concerns about safety and morality of actions will become secondary to using. These activities include stealing, using unsanitary needles, or driving while under the influence.


The consumption caused by addiction will lead the individual to lose track of personal goals and ambitions. Relationships eventually degrade. Eventually, psychological strains arise as a result.

There are a variety of treatment options when dealing with addiction. Certain individuals may find self-help techniques such as the “12-Step Optional” approach within AA and NA helpful, while others may discover medical and psychiatric care benefit them more. Addiction treatment centers can combine all of these techniques into one digestible setting – providing the best chance towards long-term recovery.


Treatment involves the hands-on medical practices such as detox, psychiatric analysis, and behavioral therapy. Treatment can combine a multitude of different techniques such as holistic approaches, individualized and group therapies.


Recovery starts the first day a commitment is made to quit the addiction. Recovery is a lifelong process. Quality treatment techniques, as well as the use of medications, can enhance the recovery process.


For someone going through recovery, support systems are a necessary pillar to maintain sobriety. Support can come from many different mediums – family, friends, community and support groups. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are support groups made up of like-minded individuals all in or seeking recovery. Sharing feelings and emotions is a large part of the healing process.

If you would like to be apart of a loved one’s support, there are ways to ensure you are supportive in the healthiest way possible. Family support mediums include:

  • Family Therapy
  • Al-Anon
  • Interventions


Healing from addiction comes first, but sustaining sobriety is the next important step. Apart from behavioral techniques and therapy,  treatment also involves the education of proper avoidance techniques. By understanding addiction and its origin, people who use drugs will become better adept at knowing which situations and decisions increase their risk for abuse.

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