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.

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. 

 

People with addictive disorders may be aware of their problem, but be unable to stop it even if they want to. The addiction may cause health problems as well as problems at work and with family members and friends. The misuse of drugs and alcohol is the leading cause of preventable illnesses and premature death.

Symptoms of substance use disorder are grouped into four categories:

  • Impaired control: a craving or strong urge to use the substance; desire or failed attempts to cut down or control substance use

  • Social problems: substance use causes failure to complete major tasks at work, school or home; social, work or leisure activities are given up or cut back because of substance use

  • Risky use: substance is used in risky settings; continued use despite known problems

  • Drug effects: tolerance (need for larger amounts to get the same effect); withdrawal symptoms (different for each substance)

 

Many people experience both mental illness and addiction. The mental illness may be present before the addiction. Or the addiction may trigger or make a mental disorder worse.

 

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.

 
 

Behavioral addiction and substance addiction have a high rate of co-occurrence, suggesting the two conditions may share a common cause.

The two addictions have similar mechanisms of action in the brain. Both substance abuse and engaging in addictive behaviors targets the brain’s reward system and produces feelings of pleasure.

Other similarities between substance addiction and behavioral addiction include;

  • Euphoria resulting from use or behavior.

  • Cravings.

  • Psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms.

  • Loss of control.

  • Development of tolerance.

  • Perceiving mind-altering effects.

  • Denial of problems, even with evidence