What is Addiction? Its Types, Prevention, And Treatment Strategies

Last Updated: August 31, 2021

Authored by Isaak Stotts, LP

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Addiction is a physical or psychological need to indulge in using any substance that is usually harmful to a person’s social, psychological, and physical health. This addiction or dependence is usually associated with alcohol and drugs, both prescription and illicit drugs, but it could be anything from gambling, work, computers, games, shopping, and other habits. The users become dependent on certain substances to the point where they start taking over their lives, and they become unable to lead normal and productive lives.

There could be many different reasons for people to indulge in drug and alcohol dependence, and each person responds to different substances and situations in different manners. Some addictions can lead to overly dangerous behavior and actions that can be harmful to the user and all those involved with him in some capacity. Addiction can be prevented by seeking timely psychological and medical help. However, all hope is not lost even after one becomes addicted to any substance. Through professional help, support, and treatment, addiction can be defeated to live a normal and productive life. Read along further to find information about addiction, its different types, statistics, risk groups, its different stages, triggers, what causes addiction, and finally, its prevention and treatment options.

What is Addiction?

So exactly what is addiction? According to the American Psychiatry Association, addiction is defined as a brain disease in which users manifest compulsive substance use habits even though it is harmful to them. The majority of the time, users are in knowledge of the harmful consequences of substance use. Still, they choose to indulge in it owing to various factors and situations. This causes drug and alcohol dependence to take over their lives, resulting in distorted thinking, behavior, and bodily functions.

Addicted woman feels depressed and lonely.

Addiction can also be defined according to a publication by the Harvard Medical School. It states that addiction is a relationship between a person and an object or activity that causes him to struggle between acting on impulse and resisting that impulse. It causes particular activity or objects to become more important while making the previously-significant things and relationships less important.

Addiction and Dependence: Are They the Same?

What is addiction and drug and alcohol dependence? Broadly speaking, both of these are somewhat different from each other. According to this publication, addiction definition includes compulsive drug use or engaging in particular activities despite their harmful consequences. The user needs to take more and more of the drug, or multiple drugs simultaneously, or indulge in that activity to achieve the same effect as before. This is also accompanied by a failure to meet social, work, and family obligations. On the other hand, physical dependence occurs with the chronic use of many drugs, including prescription drugs. Still, it may not necessarily be accompanied by awkward social, violent, or self-destructing behaviors.

Addiction and Abuse: Are There Any Differences?

Substance abuse can be defined as the need to take mind-altering substances that may prove to be harmful to themselves or the people around them. In contrast, addiction definition includes the compulsion to use drugs or engage in activities such as gambling, sex, or shopping, which eventually interferes with the person’s social, physical, psychological, and mental being. Addiction takes over the life of the user to the extent where he/she cannot resist the urge to indulge in the activity.

Types of Addiction

Addictive behaviors can either be because of substance abuse or through behavioral addictions. Therefore, it can broadly be categorized into the following two groups:

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse or dependence is the obsessive use of illicit or prescription drugs that have harmful physical, social, and psychological effects on the user, for example bad trips.

According to This Research, the Following Substances May be Included in This Category:

Behavioral Addictions

Based on this research about behavioral addiction, addictive behaviors manifest in the form of failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that may have harmful consequences, especially when indulged in excess.

The Following May be Included in the List of Behavioral Addictions:

Signs of Addiction

There are several signs and symptoms of addictive behaviors by which one can determine whether someone is abusing drugs or not.

Some of the Most Common Signs Include:

  • Increased secrecy
  • Seeking isolation or spending less time with friends and family
  • Missing out on school and work
  • Seeking situations that encourage certain behaviors or substances
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Tremors or shaking
  • Personality changes
  • Increased depression, sadness, or feelings of grief
  • Violent behavior
  • Severe reactions to stress
  • Blaming others for their failures
  • Inability to comprehend the harmful consequences of behavioral or substance addiction
  • Trouble identifying feelings
  • Mounting financial difficulties
  • Losing interest in hobbies and daily activities
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

How Many People Abuse Drugs In the U.S.?

It is estimated that there are roughly 20.7 million people in the US who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and require substance treatment. This includes illegal “recreational” or “street” drugs, as well as prescription medications.

Although street drugs are a problem, prescription medications are the most commonly abused, aside from Marijuana. 15 million people in the US abuse prescription drugs each year. Of these, many are young people. According to this National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 14.5 million people had an alcohol abuse disorder, whereas 7.5 million people had an illicit drug use disorder.

Who Is Most At Risk Of Addiction?

There are certain factors that contribute to increasing the risk for a person to become addicted and show addictive behaviors, as shown in this study.

Some of These Risk Factors are Listed Below:

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Medical history
  • Age
  • Drugs of choice
  • Method of use
  • Early use
  • Peer pressure
  • Curiosity
  • Family conflicts
  • School or work problems
  • Mental problems

The social groups that are most vulnerable to become addicted include the following:

  • Children
  • Women
  • Teens who want to experiment with a drug
  • College students who want to relieve stress or cope up with the pressures
  • Professionals who use drugs to relieve stress

What Causes Addiction

Some of the most common causes of addiction, as described in this research about what causes addiction, are discussed below:

  • Genetics and heritability
  • Certain environmental risk factors such as easy availability, the prevalence of substance abuse in the surroundings, socio-economic status, and lack of coping skills.
  • Peer pressure
  • Neurological influences
  • Poor parental supervision
  • Parental drug use
  • Poverty
  • Physical, emotional, or mental trauma

Drug Abuse and the Brain

Some drugs are more addictive than others. Thanks to scientific brain imaging, it has been discovered that drugs and other substances become addictive because they change the neurons in the brain, as well as the way they behave. Most commonly, drugs impact the areas of the brain that recognize pleasure.

As the drug takes its hold, things that once seemed enjoyable no longer create the same pleasurable feelings, while the brain begins to perceive the drug itself as a source of pleasure. Drugs may also affect the areas of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, and memory. This is one reason why drug abusers may behave recklessly and why they begin engaging in riskier and riskier behavior to obtain the drug.

These brain chemical processes are well documented and are a large component of how addiction takes place. Why some people will experience these changes sooner and more aggressively than others isn’t fully understood. It is suspected that certain genetic and biophysical markers are at play, as well as dual diagnosis.

Stages of Addiction

When a person is addicted to a substance or activity, the way his/her body responds and reacts will be different depending on what stage of addiction he/she is in.

Some of the Most Common Stages of Addiction Include the Following:

  • Experimentation: The 1st stage where users start experimenting out of curiosity or peer pressure.
  • Social stage: the user starts using the drug in social situations.
  • Problem stage: the use of drugs increases to the point where the user is no longer worried about the harmful consequences.
  • Dependency: the drug addict is fully dependent on the drug with no regard for its consequences.
addicted man sitting in despair.

Alcohol and Drug Addiction Triggers

Some factors that provoke drug abuse, as described in this study, and others are:

  • Environment. People from ghettos to people who live in mansions all have certain groups of people who deal with drugs, use, and supply them. Socializing with such a company may act as a trigger.
  • To Get a Kick. People who have used drugs once usually come back to feel the surge of euphoria or to hallucinate about pleasant things whose temptation is too strong to resist.
  • Escape from the Pain. Many abused drugs are actually opiates or other analgesics, which are medically prescribed after major surgeries or to people suffering from terminal illnesses to reduce their physical pain. Muscle relaxants and hypnotics are also given to people who have suffered from trauma. Many people become dependent on medication to stay pain-free and develop addiction due to this dependence. Overdose risks are also high in this group.
  • Social Anxiety. Many people who have a fear of socializing and feel loneliness and boredom become inclined towards using drugs that would take them to a different world in a dream-like state.
  • Fame and Money. People who earn fame and wealth overnight fall into strange addictions and habits because of this sudden rise in status. Many celebrities have destroyed their lives, health, and career due to drug abuse.
  • Maternal Drug History. In slums and poor communities, unprotected sexual intercourse is as common as drug abuse, which results in many babies being born to addicted mothers. If this problem isn’t addressed in infancy, such a baby can turn into a drug addict with high tolerance levels to drugs.
  • Peer Pressure. People who are exposed to an environment where people around them use intoxicating beverages freely are prone to developing addiction sooner or later. Next time when they are going through a hard time, they will find an escape from the forgetfulness provided by beer or wine readily available to them. Children of alcoholic parents become addicts in the same manner.
  • Depression or Trauma. Mentally destabilizing events are the commonest and strongest of the triggers. Alcohol throws a person into oblivion, where they escape reality, which is too painful for them. Once they start depending upon booze, it is hard for them to stop, and thus addiction starts.
  • Gender and Age: based on this study, women experience greater alcohol craving as compared to men. Similarly, people aged less than 45 are more likely to experience a craving for a substance or alcohol and become a drug addict as compared to people older than 45 years.
Asian male suffers from everyday stress.

How Is Drug Abuse Prevented?

Although drug abuse is still a major issue among young people and adults, preventative methods have been successful at keeping them from using harmful substances.

Preventative Methods Usually Focus on:

  • Education – The more people understand how dangerous and life-changing drug use is, the less likely they will be to use themselves. Many people know that drugs are addictive, but they may not realize that some drugs are addictive even after only one use. They may know the signs to look for or what constitutes drug abuse. Having this knowledge can help them make smarter choices or seek help at the first sign of trouble, either for themselves or loved ones.
  • Entertainment – Some people wind up using drugs because they come in contact with the wrong groups of people. Recreational centers and healthy recreational opportunities can prevent people from using drugs by offering them positive ways to expend energy and pass the time.
  • Mentorship – Because many teens use drugs as a form of self-medication to cover negative emotions stemming from poor self-esteem or a dysfunctional home environment, mentorship can help steer young people in a better direction. Mentors may take the time to tutor kids in school subjects, discuss life events, or just give them someone to hang out with to prevent loneliness.
  • Avoid Temptation and Peer Pressure – some people may start abusing drugs under peer pressure. It is highly imperative to avoid such a company and make new friends with healthier habits and goals.
  • Healthier Lifestyle – People who adopt a healthier lifestyle such as exercising, healthier eating, and meditation can be more successful in preventing addiction and co-occurring disorders.
  • Support – Finding the support that one needs during the depression, anxiety, trauma, or mental health problems can also go a long way in preventing substance or alcohol abuse.

Getting Addiction Help

Addiction is a serious problem that can rarely be tackled without professional help—the majority of people who attempt to get clean and sober on their own end up with a relapse.

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Page Sources

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  3. Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction?, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/frequently-asked-questions/there-difference-between-physical-dependence-addiction
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville (MD), Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519702/
  5. Jon E. Grant, Marc N. Potenza, Aviv Weinstein, and David A. Gorelick, “Introduction to Behavioral Addictions”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164585/
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  7. Morten Hesse, What Does Addiction Mean To Me, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3190444/
  8. Samuel Asensio, Vicente Hernández-Rabaza, and José Víctor Orón Semper, What Is the “Trigger” of Addiction?, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7186308/
  9. Alexandra Ghiţă, Lidia Teixidor, Miquel Monras, Lluisa Ortega, Silvia Mondon, Antoni Gual, Sofia Miranda Paredes, Laura Villares Urgell, Bruno Porras-García, Marta Ferrer-García, and José Gutiérrez-Maldonado, Identifying Triggers of Alcohol Craving to Develop Effective Virtual Environments for Cue Exposure Therapy, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6361736/

Published on: September 28th, 2015

Updated on: August 31st, 2021

About Author

Isaak Stotts, LP

Isaak Stotts is an in-house medical writer in AddictionResource. Isaak learned addiction psychology at Aspen University and got a Master's Degree in Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling. After graduation, he became a substance abuse counselor, providing individual, group, and family counseling for those who strive to achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery goals.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.