What Is Addiction?

What Is Addiction

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease defined by a physical and psychological dependence on drugs, alcohol or a behavior. When an addictive disorder has formed, a person will pursue their toxic habits despite putting themselves or others in harm’s way.

An addiction heavily impacts the way a person thinks, feels and acts. Many individuals with addictive disorders are aware of their problem, but have difficulty stopping on their own.

While it can be tempting to try a drug or addictive activity for the first time, it’s all too easy for things to go south – especially in the case of drug and alcohol abuse. When a person consumes a substance repeatedly over time, they begin building a tolerance. A tolerance occurs when you need to use larger amounts of drugs or alcohol to achieve the same effects as when you started.

Prolonged substance abuse can result in a dangerous cycle of addiction — where a person needs to continue using drugs or alcohol in order to avoid the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. By the time a person realizes they have a problem, drugs or alcohol have already seized control, causing them to prioritize its use over everything else that was once important in their lives.

No one ever plans to become addicted. There are countless reasons why someone would try a substance or behavior. Some are driven by curiosity and peer pressure, while others are looking for a way to relieve stress. Children who grow up in environments where drugs and alcohol are present have a greater risk of developing a substance abuse disorder down the road. Other factors that might steer a person toward harmful substance use behavior include:

Genetics

Research estimates that genetics account for 40 to 60 percent of a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use problem.

Mental health disorders

Teens and adults with mental disorders are more likely to develop substance abuse patterns than the general population.

Addiction and the Brain

Excessive substance abuse affects many parts of the body, but the organ most impacted is the brain. When a person consumes a substance such as drugs or alcohol, their brain produces large amounts of dopamine, which triggers the brain’s reward system. After repeated drug use, the brain is unable to produce normal amounts of dopamine on its own. This means that a person will struggle to find enjoyment in pleasurable activities – like spending time with friends or family – when they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Learn more about how an addiction takes hostage of the brain.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug dependency, it’s vital to seek treatment as soon as possible. All too often people try to get better on their own, but this can be difficult and in some cases dangerous.

Recognizing and Understanding Addiction

Identifying a substance abuse problem can be a complicated process. While some signs of addictive behaviors are obvious, others are more difficult to recognize. Many people who realize they have a problem will try to hide it from family and friends, making it harder to tell whether someone is struggling.

Television, media and film often depict people with substance abuse issues as criminals, or individuals with moral shortcomings. The truth is, there’s no single face of addiction. Anyone can develop patterns of abuse or risky behaviors, no matter their age, culture or financial status.

The Difference Between Addiction and Dependence

The terms “addiction” and “dependence” are often confused or used interchangeably. While there is some overlap, it’s important to understand the major differences between the two.

A dependence is present when someone develops a physical tolerance to a substance. They may experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using the drug altogether. Usually, a dependency is resolved by slowly tapering off the use of a particular substance.

On the other hand, an addiction occurs when extensive drug or alcohol use has caused a person’s brain chemistry to change. Addictions manifest themselves as uncontrollable cravings to use drugs, despite doing harm to oneself or others. The only way to overcome an addiction is through treatment.

Read more about addiction versus dependence.