Understanding Addiction

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Nowadays, the word “addiction” has become a hot-button issue as its effects touch the lives of more and more people. Whether it be drugs or alcohol, people from all walks of life have been left to deal with the consequences of substance abuse.

It can be easy to view addiction as a physical problem, considering how drugs and alcohol start the ball rolling. While the physical effects of addiction can’t be denied, it’s the psychological effects that take hold of a person’s daily life and keep the problem alive.

By understanding addiction and how it works, you can help prevent this epidemic from taking over your life or the life of someone you love.

What is Addiction?

The Physical Component

Addictive substances, be they alcohol or drugs, all have the ability to alter the brain’s chemical workings. While this may not be apparent at the start, over time, the physical component lays the groundwork for a full-blown addiction to take root.

In essence, the physical effects of addiction take root within the brain’s chemical environment. From there, ongoing drug use creates a snowball effect that “rewires” the brain’s system in fundamental ways.

The Behavioral Component

Addiction’s mental-emotional component has to do with the way substance abuse becomes the focus in a person’s daily life. In effect, the physical effects brought on by substance abuse change how the areas of the brain work and interact with one another.

The brain reward system, in particular, bears the brunt of addiction’s effects as this system relies heavily on a balanced chemical system to function normally. Since the reward system essentially dictates a person’s daily priorities and motivations, a full-blown addiction develops once this system becomes dependent on a drug’s (or alcohol’s) effects.

Addiction Statistics

Drug & Alcohol Abuse Rates

Rates of drug and alcohol abuse can be a pretty good gauge as far as addiction trends go. Over the past decade or so, substance abuse rates have seen considerable increases, partly due to the influx of new prescription opiate drugs on the market.

An estimated 24.6 million Americans reported engaging in some form of substance abuse in 2013. Compared to rates recorded in 2002, substance abuse practices increased by 8.3 percent.

Alcohol abuse rates for 2013 showed 52.2 percent of Americans engaging in some form of drinking behavior. In terms of actual alcohol abuse, an estimated 22.9 percent of drinkers reported engaging in bingeing behaviors.

Types of Addiction

While the effects of addiction remain the same, addictive substances can vary in how they interact with the brain’s chemical processes.


Alcohol continues to rank number one as the most commonly abused addictive substance. Best known for its ability to produce feelings of calm and contentment, alcohol works by slowing down brain chemical activities through its effects on GABA chemical production rates.

GABA, one of a group of essential neurotransmitter chemicals, regulates electrical activity throughout the brain and central nervous system. In excess amounts, GABA reduces electrical activity. Alcohol’s effects increase GABA production rates.

With alcohol abuse, ongoing interference with GABA production offsets the brain’s chemical balance, which sets the addiction cycle in motion.


Opiates include prescription painkillers, such as codeine and fentanyl and illegal drugs like heroin and opium, all of which are highly addictive. Like alcohol, opiates also slow chemical activities in the brain and central nervous system, but in a different way.

Most all opiate drugs force the brain to produce high levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters play a central role in regulating the body’s own pain management system as well as affecting sensory perceptions and emotions.

The ability of opiates to alter these chemical processes accounts for why this group of drugs is so addictive.


Sedative drugs, such as Xanax and Valium work in much the same way as alcohol, increasing GABA production rates and slowing brain and central nervous system functions. Commonly prescribed to treat conditions involving anxiety symptoms, sedatives reduce the brain’s electrical activity, which in turn helps to calm feelings of anxiety.

Like alcohol, sedatives drugs are highly addictive, especially when used for longer than three months at a time.


Rather than slow brain chemical activities, stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and Adderall speed up chemical processes. Stimulants act directly on the brain’s dopamine production rates, causing massive amounts of dopamine to flood the brain with each use.

For the most part, dopamine plays a central role in regulating the brain’s reward system, which lies at the heart of a growing addiction problem. The ability of stimulants to alter dopamine processes directly accounts for why stimulant-based drugs carry a high potential for addiction.


Hallucinogen drugs include several different types of pills and plants, all of which work to alter a person’s sensory perceptions, emotions and sense of self and reality. Some of the more commonly used hallucinogens include LSD, ketamine and crystal meth.

While nowhere near as addictive as the other drug types, hallucinogens still interfere with the brain’s chemical system in drastic ways. When used on an ongoing basis, the likelihood of developing addiction increases considerably.

Who’s Most Susceptible?

Certain types of drugs, like opiates and alcohol, carry an especially high risk for addiction, but certain risk factors tend to increase a person’s susceptibility regardless of the drug type.

According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, risk factors to watch for include:

  • High-stress lifestyle
  • Past experiences with abuse, be it physical, emotional or sexual
  • Emotional problems, such as depression
  • Psychological problems, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes
  • Growing up in a dysfunctional family

Warning Signs

Warning signs of addiction can vary from person to person depending on individual circumstances, though certain key signs tend to prevail across the board.

Loss of Interest

As drugs start to take on greater importance, a person will likely lose interest in activities and pursuits he or she once enjoyed. This loss of interest also goes for more pressing areas of daily life, such as work, personal care and important relationships with friends and family.

Over time, the effects of addictive substances on brain functioning essentially changes a person’s psychological makeup in significant ways. Once getting and using drugs becomes the sole focus of daily living, a person’s motivations, priorities and sense of right and wrong all hinge on the need to get “high.”

Increasing Usage Levels

Ongoing substance abuse not only disrupts the brain’s chemical environment, but also damages the cells that produce neurotransmitter materials. Individual cells develop structural damage that weakens their ability to produce these chemicals. This same damage also makes cells less sensitive to the effects of the drug.

As cell damage increases, the brain requires larger amounts of the drug (or alcohol) to produce the same “high” effect. This need for larger doses will continue for as long as a person uses the drug.

Physical Discomforts

Brain chemical imbalances brought on by substance abuse interfere with the brain’s ability to maintain normal bodily functions. These developments account for the physical discomforts or withdrawal effects that develop along the way.

Withdrawal effects play a key role in driving continued substance abuse practices as users attempt to gain relief from uncomfortable symptoms by taking more of the drug. These discomforts will grow more severe over time.

Symptoms can vary depending on the type of drug, though some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Random aches and pains
  • Fatigue

Mental/Emotional Distress

Addictive substances interfere with the way the areas of the brain communicate with one another, especially the areas that regulate thinking and emotions. After a certain point, the ability to feel normal or content will hinge on maintaining needed supplies of the drug in one’s system.

As the brain’s dependence on a drug increases, users stand to experience increasing emotional distress. Symptoms of mental/emotional distress typically take the form of:

Changes in Lifestyle

More than anything else, addiction changes a person’s daily patterns of behavior to where getting and using the drug takes on top priority in his or her daily life. These changes inevitably disrupt other important life areas and transforms one’s overall lifestyle in the process.

Lifestyle changes to watch for include:

The Need for Treatment Help

While lifestyle changes clearly indicate some form of treatment is needed, seeking out needed treatment help during the early stages of a developing addiction can spare you the pain and frustration that comes with a full-blown addiction problem. Once the early signs of substance abuse start to surface, it’s only a matter of time before the effects of addiction start to take over your life.

Levels of Care / Treatment