Addictions (Overview)

Addiction is defined as a chronic dysfunction in the brain that typically involves motivation, memory and reward.

The primary objective is the attainability of a ‘reward’ which is achieved through actions of compulsive or obsessive pursuit. Substances and behaviours create a pleasurable ‘high’ that’s both physical and psychological.

Thus, a pattern develops in a person’s habits whereby they use more of the substance or engage in certain behaviours more frequently to achieve that ‘high’ again, repeatedly satisfying the craving. This ‘craving’ becomes difficult to stop over time and often comes with a lack of concern over the consequences of this behaviour.

Addictions, no matter the type, are disruptive and can seriously interfere with a person’s daily life. An addictive existence often results in cycles of relapse and remission. Cycles range from mild to intense, but all addictions are capable of worsening over time. Serious consequences, as well as more permanent health complications can, and do, happen with those affected by addictions.

What are the signs of addiction?

Self-control is a central factor in all types of addiction. Many of the signs of addiction are closely associated with an inability to maintain a healthy level of self-control.

Typical signs of addiction include:

  • The inability to stay away from a substance or stop a specific pattern of behaviour. Some individuals will actively seek out situations as a way of encouraging specific behaviours. This is also closely linked to an increase in secretive behavioural patterns.
  • The display of a lack of self-control
  • An increased desire for a specific substance or behaviour
  • Denial (dismissal of how a behaviour is causing problems)
  • The addict acknowledging problems caused by their addiction, but finding it increasingly difficult to stop their behaviour
  • Showing little or no emotional response
  • Insomnia or memory loss

Other emotional and behavioural changes often noted with addiction can also include:

  • An unrealistic or poor assessment of right and wrong associated with certain behaviours or using a substance.
  • Blaming other people or factors for an addiction and / or the consequences
  • Experiencing increased levels of anxiety and depression
  • Experiencing increased sensitivity, and consequently, more severe reactions to stress
  • Finding it difficult to identify feelings and emotions
  • Difficulty with differentiating between emotions and physical sensations associated with feelings

Woman with drinking habit.

Types of addiction

A substance or pattern of behaviour characterises an addiction. Some of the most common substance addictions (also known as drug abuse) around the world are:

  • Nicotine (found in tobacco)
  • Alcoholism
  • THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – this is the chemical responsible for most of the psychological effects found in marijuana)
  • Opioid (narcotics and pain relievers)
  • Cocaine

Common substance or behavioural triggers of addiction are:

  • Caffeine
  • Gambling
  • Anger (a coping strategy)
  • Food
  • Work
  • Technology
  • Sex

Work, technology and sex triggers are not recognised addictions as such, but the habits or social behaviours associated with them do strongly resemble one. The reason for this is that ‘reward’ is a key form of gratification (either in a physical or psychological sense - or both) a person expects from these and one may react negatively if they do not receive it. A negative physical and psychological reaction may be headaches and irritability (due to a caffeine addiction), for instance.

Causes of addiction

  • The brain: Frontal lobes in the brain allow a person to delay gratification (feelings associated with reward). Those who can delay such feelings may try a substance or engage in a certain behaviour once, and never again. Others will try a substance or behave in a certain way which then becomes an addiction. The reason for this is that the frontal lobe malfunctions and a sense of gratification is immediate. The pleasure in achieving something gratifying so quickly is key to an addiction. The anterior cingulate cortex and nucleus accumbens in the brain also play a role in addiction. These areas of the brain are also associated with gratification and pleasurable sensations. This in turn, increases a person’s response to the addictive substance or behaviour, beginning a cycle. Mental disorders (such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) and chemical imbalances in the brain can also be underlying causes of addiction. Coping strategies typically associated with these types of disorders can lead to addictions or addictive behaviours.
  • Exposure to substances and behaviours: Early exposure to substance and behavioural triggers play a significant role in forming an addiction, and thus beginning a cycle or addictive pattern. A culture or environment can also have an impact on how a person responds to certain behaviours and substances. Traumatic experiences may also lead to behaviours where coping mechanisms develop into an addiction, especially where there is a lack of or disruption in a person’s social support system.

Stages of addiction

Addiction typically plays out in stages. The brain, body and emotional reactions to the early stages of addiction are different from those experienced later, when things become at their most problematic.

Stages of addiction can be broken down into:

  • Experimentation: Engaging in or using something out of curiosity
  • Regular or social: Engaging in or using something in social situations or for social reasons
  • Risk / problematic: Engaging in or using something in an extreme way with a disregard for any consequences
  • Dependency: Engaging in or using something on a daily basis or several times during a day (increased frequency), irrespective of any negative consequences

Risk factors and complications

Any and every type of addiction has consequences that result in negative, sometimes long-term, effects. Addiction directly affects the person involved, but can also have a serious impact on those closest to them. Different substances and behavioural patterns can cause serious disruptions in a person’s life. In more serious instances, it could even mean the end of their life.

Typical complication factors can include:

  • Physical health problems, such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS and neurological damage
  • Emotional and psychological problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression
  • Social problems, such as damaged relationships, and even being charged and jailed for criminal offenses
  • Economic problems, such as debt and bankruptcy

Rehabilitation for substance abuse treatment.

Treatment and support

Treating addiction

It is important to remember that all types of addiction are treatable. Comprehensive treatment measures help a person understand their addiction, identify their triggers and proactively disengage with the factors they would normally seek out to ‘feed’ their addiction. Treatments also help a person to better manage their lives and become functional in society again.

The type of treatment recommended by a medical professional will depend on both the severity and state of the addiction. Earlier stages of addiction may merely require recommended medication and therapy. More severe stages may require inpatient addiction treatment within a controlled setting.

Common treatments and therapies include:

  • Medications (prescribed for mental / psychological disorders)
  • Psychotherapy (including group and behavioural therapy sessions)
  • Medical services (this may be necessary to assist with treating serious complications such as withdrawal during a detox process)
  • An addiction case manager (aid with coordinating, as well as checking on recommended treatment plans)
  • Rehabilitation or inpatient addiction treatment
  • Support or self-help groups

Overcoming an addiction is a journey, and for most, a long one. The recovery process can therefore really benefit from the right kind of continuous support. A strong network of social support via addiction experts, family and friends, as well as local community groups can make all the difference when it comes to recovery.

Letting those closest to you know about your treatment plan can have the added benefit of helping you keep track of, as well as avoid triggers altogether.

Man receiving counselling from psychologist.


What is the most common drug addiction?

Prescription medications are one of the most common drug addictions across the world. Classes of prescription medications include opioid painkillers (pain relievers), stimulants, and depressants.

Opioid medications are known to be addictive with continued use, and thus when prescribed, users are encouraged by their medical healthcare provider to only use as recommended. Commonly prescribed opioids include painkillers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), morphine, fentanyl and codeine.

What are opioids?

Opioids, also called opiates, are a class of drug derived from the opium poppy. These drugs typically include addictive substances (with synthetic or partially synthetic formulas) such as morphine, codeine, heroin and oxycodone, often found in prescription painkillers.

Many opioids are made and used as painkillers. Some opioids, such as codeine, morphine and oxycodone are prescription medications for the treatment of pain. Using these medicines in a way not directed by a medical doctor or purely for recreation purposes may be considered abuse due to their addictive ingredients. Heroin is an opioid drug which is considered illegal.

The purpose of using an opioid is to reduce symptoms of pain and anxiety. The attraction for a potential addiction is that it creates a sense of numbness in both the body and mind. High doses bring about a short-lived feeling of euphoria and drowsiness (a mellow feeling). Habitual users crave this exact feeling, making it easy for an addiction to occur, and even more so, difficult to stop.

Opioids can be taken orally, injected into a vein, inhaled through the nose or smoked. Prescription variations can also be used as suppositories. The method of consumption and type of opioid typically determines the kind of effect it has on a person.

The more you use opioids, the higher your tolerance and risk of developing an addiction resulting in a need to ‘feel the same effects’ of the medication or drug. Some people even begin to have trouble achieving their ‘high’ due to these tolerance increases. An opioid addiction may develop rather swiftly, even with minimal use. If you discontinue use suddenly, you may experience physical withdrawal symptoms. A habitual user’s body (physical) will ‘crave’ the drug and the temporary feeling of intense euphoria.

Persistent opioid use can have serious health consequences. The brain’s normal production of natural painkillers and dopamine (the ‘feel-good’ chemical in the brain) can become impaired. Habitual use can also have a damaging impact on multiple organs in the body.

Negative physical and mental effects of addiction to opioids can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting (also an increased risk of choking)
  • A slower breathing rate
  • An impaired immune system
  • Coma
  • Hallucinations
  • A high risk of HIV, hepatitis or other infectious diseases (commonly seen in intravenous use)
  • Clogged blood vessels or collapsed veins

What is a behavioural addiction?

A behavioural addiction is characterised by a compulsion to repeatedly perform a rewarding non-drug related action or behaviour. This ‘reward’ is sometimes known as a natural reward, even though this type of addiction can result in negative consequences to a person’s physical, mental, social and / or financial well-being.

Disclaimer - is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition or illness or act as a substitute for professional medical advice.