What is Addiction?

Addiction is Complicated, But It Can Be Understood and Overcome

According to the Surgeon General Office in August 2019, more than 27 million people in the United States reported using illicit drugs or misusing prescription drugs. Nearly a quarter of adults and adolescents reported binge drinking in the past month.

Addiction Awareness

Addiction is incredibly complex. It is a mental illness, a brain disease, a substance use disorder, a behavioral health condition, and sometimes a way of self-medication. Addiction to alcohol or other drugs affects almost 1 in 10 Americans. Although people mention it casually in conversation, referring to themselves as “fitness junkies” or “shopaholics,” addiction is not something to be taken lightly.


What Is the Definition of Addiction?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a chronic disorder characterized by obsessive, irrational drug seeking and continued use regardless of harmful consequences. Addiction is the most extreme form of a substance use disorder. Medical research proving that it is a mental illness and a complex brain disorder has helped lessen the negativity associated with a substance use disorder and entering treatment; however, it remains surrounded by stigma. People with substance use disorder may know they have a problem but cannot help themselves, although they may want or try to.


What Are the Symptoms, Signs, and Behaviors?

Most symptoms, signs, and behaviors of addiction involve an inability to manage self-control. Addiction or drug use signs and behavior may include possible changes that are:



Being secretive, drastic changes in personal relationships, hiding from friends or family


Problems at work or school, disinterest in daily activities, looking for situations that encourage drug use


Sleeplessness, memory loss, anxiety, depression, sadness


Lack of energy and motivation, weight loss or gain, red eyes, neglected appearance


The sudden need for more money, requests for money without reasonable explanation, missing cash or items


Some symptoms and emotional changes related to addiction:



Addiction can make a person become obsessed with a substance, putting all their time, energy, and money into finding a way to continue to get it. Letting their lives fall to the wayside, they tend to blame other factors and people for their problems.


In many cases, dependency is an inability to stop using. It gives the user unrealistic judgments on what the substance is doing for them.

Risky Behavior

It is common for someone with an addiction to have increased sensitivity and more harsh reactions in situations. They may take risks they wouldn’t have before to get the substance or while under the influence.


Many people with substance use disorders are not aware they are addicted or dependent on a substance. Some people that are aware of their addictions refuse to accept the need for treatment.

What Causes Addiction?

Addictive substances can cause a rush of intense pleasure and have substantial effects on the brain. These intoxicated feelings create euphoria and fill the brain with rewarding feelings, activating a release of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter tied to feeling pleasure. The National Institute of Health’s research has revealed brain imaging studies in humans that show activation of dopamine during alcohol and other substance use, including nicotine. Dopamine is a critical regulator of learning, motivation, energy, attention, and time, which allows an influential reinforcement association with substance consumption and happiness. As time passes with continuous substance use, addiction will be more challenging to put a stop to because natural rewarding behaviors become less satisfying.

Addiction and the Brain

Substance abuse changes brain structure and function, beginning with recognizing pleasure and ending with a tendency for impulsive behavior to regain that pleasure. All addictive substances cause a particularly potent release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the region known as the brain’s pleasure center. According to Harvard Health, addictive drugs can release two to ten times the dopamine amount that natural rewards do. They cut a corner straight to the brain’s “reward circuit,” known as the basal ganglia brain region, by overloading the pleasure center with dopamine. This shortcut plays a significant role in the addiction cycle by trumping the brain’s pleasure and reward system.
Addiction to a substance affects the entire human brain, but certain brain regions play an especially important role in addiction. After substance use rewards the brain, the amygdala brain region stores positive associations of pleasure with that substance to help create a conditioned response—these acquired responses from the brain aid in creating a craving. Continuous use of an addictive substance causes the brain’s prefrontal cortex’s involvement, controlling impulses and stimulating habits by the motivation of the rewarding stimulus that started the addiction cycle.

The Addiction Cycle

Addiction is a repetitive cycle with three stages associated directly with drug use in three brain regions, the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. With effective addiction treatment, the addiction cycle stops at the last stage. In cognitive behavioral therapy, successful management of the executive function, the impulsive control in cognitive behavior, controls your ability to make the right choices not to use a substance when urged or triggered, is addressed.
The three stages of addiction are:

Binge / Intoxication:

This stage significantly involves the basal ganglia, the brain’s “habit circuitry,” because along with dopamine activation, it plays a crucial role in producing rewarding feelings that substance use creates.

Withdrawal / Negative Affect:

During this stage, there is a decrease in the brain’s reward system function. Through withdrawal, which includes negative emotions, the extended amygdala activates the brain’s stress systems.

Preoccupation / Anticipation:

This stage of addiction engages the prefrontal cortex part of the brain, characterized by an interruption of the executive function. The prefrontal cortex region controls the executive function, the capacity to organize thoughts, prioritize, manage time, and regulate one’s actions and emotions.


Is Addiction Genetic?

Genes and environment contribute to the initial use of an addictive substance and the transition to addiction, but addiction is inheritable. Addiction research shows no clear evidence of an inheritance theory, and the intricacy is not entirely understood. It is essential to comprehend addiction’s impact on the family because family directly influences nature and nurture. Research has proven that individuals raised in a family where substance use disorder is prevalent in the home are at a higher risk of developing an addiction.


How Does Addiction Affect Family?

The struggle of addiction is a burden that the whole family feels. Family holds the answer to how addictions form, maintain, and positively influence the disorder’s treatment. Therefore treating only the person with the disease is restricted in how successful recovery can be. Family members feel the devasting impacts of addiction, sometimes ignoring the family unit to support change. Families can heal, but no family member can be left untreated.


Can You Fully Recover from Addiction?

Recovery transcends well beyond sobriety. It’s an opportunity for a new lease on life. It allows a paradigm shift to a mindset of healing and wellness. Research has proven most people who go through treatment establish a new foundation for an ongoing effort to manage their recovery. There is no cure for addiction; it’s a constant evolution toward self-growth for a fulfilling life. You are stronger than it.

Find Meaningful Recovery

Our caring and compassionate specialists are eager to help you comfortably navigate this journey to recovery. Our individualized treatment plan, programs, and therapies may be a perfect match for you or your loved one. Let us assist you in living the happy life you deserve. It starts with a phone call.

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