Types, causes and stages of addiction

Types, causes and stages 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
PREVIOUS What are the signs of addiction?
NEXT Risk factors and complications of addiction