Addiction – Part One: The Basics

I have been wanting to touch on this incredibly personal topic for quite a long time, but I haven’t been able to find the right words until recently.
Over time, I’ve come to learn just how widespread the problem is and how deeply it’s impacting the lives of not only the addicts, but their loved ones. This blog series is going to take a deep dive into the who, how, what, and why of addiction; including family roles, codependency, enabling, toxic behaivors, offering resources, revocery, and treatment.

There are common misconceptions about drug abuse that can prevent addicts and their loved ones from getting the treatment and recovery they need to live a healthy, productive life. This is why we are starting part one of our series with a crash course on understanding drug use and addiction.

What is addiction?

Addiction is defined as being physically or mentally dependent on something, and not being able to stop without having adverse effects. Addicts have difficulty controlling how much and how long they use, despite the harmful consequences. The initial decision to use drugs or alcohol is often voluntary and done to relax, escape or reward themselves. However, repeated use overtime can lead to physical changes in the brain that interfere with the users ability to resist intense urges to use.

What happens to the brain?

addiction and the brain

In a properly functioning reward circuit in the brain, dopamine is released when it registers a pleasurable experience, such as eating a delicious meal or spending time with a loved one. Most drugs impact this reward system by causing a particularly powerful surge of dopamine.

Dopamine also plays a role in learning and memory, which are two key elements in the transition from liking something to becoming addicted. Addictive substances and behaviors begin to simulate the same circuit , and then overload it. This reinforces the unhealthy behaviors, encouraging people to use the substance again and again.

Eventually, the brain adapts and the rewards circuit doesn’t respond as it did in the beginning. Someone who has developed an addiction will eventually find that the substance doesn’t give them as much pleasure compared to the high they felt when first using. This effect is known as tolerance. This leads to the person having to take more of it to obtain that high. This is the point where compulsion takes over. The pleasure has subsided, but the memory of the desired high and urge to recreate it persists.

Long term use also causes other chemical changes that impact cognitive functions including: learning, judgment, decision making, stress, memory, and behavior.

Who is at risk?

If you think it can’t happen to you, my friend, you are wrong. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2017, 19.7 million Americans, age 12 and older, battled substance abuse disorder.

There are many reasons an individual might try a substance to start with. It can be as seemingly harmless as getting a prescription to manage pain or mental health issues, as culturally acceptable as trying a drink at the age of 21, or the most assumed thought, being peer pressured to try illicit drugs. Regardless of how the initial use occurs, it’s the first stage in the addiction cycle.

Addiction also crosses all socio-economic boundaries. It has been found that 10% of teachers, 10% of plumbers and 10% of CEOs have an addiction. However, almost twice as many people who are unemployed struggle with addiction than those who are full time workers.

There are a number of risk factors that can lead a person to a higher risk for developing an addiction. For example:

  • Genetics – about 50-60 percent of addiction is due to genetic predisposition
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Poor coping skills
  • Early exposure to drugs
  • Parents and family that are permissive about substance use
  • Underlying mental disorder such as anxiety or stress

Signs and symptoms

Addiction and drug abuse

According to the diagnostic manual for mental disorders (the DSM-5), a person diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder will display at least two of the 11 following symptoms:

  • Using more drugs or alcohol than the person originally intended
  • Inability to stop or repeatedly failing to control one’s use
  • A large amount of time is spent using drugs / alcohol, seeking drugs / alcohol, or doing whatever is needed to obtain it
  • Unable to fulfill obligations such as work, school, or duties at home
  • Craving or desiring the substance
  • Continued use despite health problems caused or worsened by it
  • Continued use despite the detriment and problems it’s caused one’s relationships
  • Regularly using even in dangerous situations ( i.e. driving or operating machinery)
  • Giving up or reduced participation in favorite activities in favor of using
  • Building up a tolerance to the substance
  • Experiencing withdrawal when use is stopped


  • In 2017, there were 70,237 drug over dose deaths in the United States, 66% of which were males
  • In 2017, 8.5 million American adults suffered from both a mental health disorder and substance abuse
  • Addiction costs American society over $740 billion annually in lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses, and crime-related expenses
  • Only 4 million out of an estimated 20 million people received treatment for substance abuse in 2017
  • Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States
  • 40% of all hospital beds in the United States are used to treat conditions related to alcohol consumption
  • Nearly 10% of adults in the united states (an estimated 22 million) are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction


Have hope! When dealing with addiction, it can be hard to remember that recovery is not only possible but it can be a reality. Hope lays the foundation of recovery by believing these challenges and conditions can be overcome.

The process of recovery is highly personal and occurs over many pathways. There are many medical and non-medical withdrawal units, detox programs, and addiction treatment options.

If you or someone you know is ready to take their first step towards recovery, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) is a great resource to utilize. Click here to search for a treatment facility near you.

Now that we have a basic understanding of addiction, come back next week, where we’ll discuss addiction and relationships.

Addiction and drug abuse

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