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When a person succumbs to the grip of an addiction, it is extremely difficult to quit on their own. Understanding how a substance abuse problem develops helps to shed light on why they are so hard to beat. Learn about what addiction is, the signs to look out for and related topics below.

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What Is Addiction?

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.

An addiction heavily impacts the way a person thinks, feels and acts. Many individuals with addictive disorders are aware of their problem, but have difficulty stopping on their own.

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. Other factors that might steer a person toward harmful substance use behavior include:


Research estimates that genetics account for 40 to 60 percent of a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use problem.

Mental Health Disorders

Teens and adults with mental disorders are more likely to develop substance abuse patterns than the general population.

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.

Learn more about how an addiction takes hostage of the brain.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug dependency, it’s vital to seek treatment as soon as possible. All too often people try to get better on their own, but this can be difficult and in some cases dangerous.

Recognizing and Understanding Addiction

Identifying a substance abuse problem can be a complicated process. While some signs of addictive behaviors are obvious, others are more difficult to recognize. Many people who realize they have a problem will try to hide it from family and friends, making it harder to tell whether someone is struggling.

Television, media and film often depict people with substance abuse issues as criminals, or individuals with moral shortcomings. The truth is, there’s no single face of addiction. Anyone can develop patterns of abuse or risky behaviors, no matter their age, culture or financial status.

The Difference Between Addiction and Dependence

The terms “addiction” and “dependence” are often confused or used interchangeably. While there is some overlap, it’s important to understand the major differences between the two.

A dependence is present when someone develops a physical tolerance to a substance. They may experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using the drug altogether. Usually, a dependency is resolved by slowly tapering off the use of a particular substance.

On the other hand, an addiction occurs when extensive drug or alcohol use has caused a person’s brain chemistry to change. Addictions manifest themselves as uncontrollable cravings to use drugs, despite doing harm to oneself or others. The only way to overcome an addiction is through treatment.

Read more about addiction versus dependence.

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Diagnosing an Addiction

Identifying addiction is like diagnosing any other illness. The patient is examined for symptoms meeting specific, scientific criteria defining the illness in question. One of the best tools for spotting addiction is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

The criteria outlined in the DSM are generally accepted and used by professionals to help determine the presence and severity of a substance use disorder. They include:

  • Lack of control

    The substance is used in larger amounts or over a longer time than the person originally intended.

  • Desire to limit use

    Wanting to cut back on use but being unable to do so.

  • Time spent

    A considerable amount of time is spent trying to acquire a substance.

  • Cravings

    The user experiences an intense desire or urge to use their drug.

  • Lack of responsibility

    Substance use takes priority over work, school or home obligations.

  • Problems with relationships

    Interpersonal relationships are consistently strained from drug use.

  • Loss of interest

    User stops engaging in important social or recreational activities in favor of drug use.

  • Dangerous use

    Continued use despite dangerous circumstances.

  • Worsening situations

    Continued use despite worsened physical or psychological problems.

  • Tolerance

    A need for larger amounts of the substance to achieve desired effects.

  • Withdrawal

    This can be physical and emotional. Side effects may include: anxiety, irritability, nausea and vomiting.

Warning Signs of Addiction

Addictions begin with experimentation with a substance. There are many reasons someone might initially try a drug, including curiosity, peer pressure or stress and problems at work or home.

If you are concerned someone you care about is struggling with addiction, there are several red flags you can look for. However, it’s important to remember everyone is different; it may be harder to detect an addiction in some people than in others. That being said, here are some general warning signs to be aware of:

  • Ignoring commitments or responsibilities
  • Problems at work, school or at home
  • Unexplained absences
  • Appearing to have a new set of friends
  • Considerable monetary fluctuations
  • Staying up later than usual or sleeping in longer
  • Lapses in concentration or memory
  • Being oddly secretive about parts of personal life
  • Withdrawal from normal social contacts
  • Sudden mood swings and change in behavior
  • Unusual lack of motivation
  • Weight loss or changes in physical appearance

No one expects to develop an addiction when they begin experimenting. However, continued experimentation can lead to addiction, often without the person realizing they have become addicted until they try to stop.

Addiction Statistics

Millions of Americans struggle with some form of addiction. If you are one of them, know you are not alone—and that many treatment options exist to help you overcome your addiction.


million Americans

Over 20 million Americans over the age of 12 have an addiction (excluding tobacco).


people per day

100 people die every day from an overdose. This rate has tripled in the past 20 years.


million visits

Over 5 million of emergency room visits in 2011 were related to drugs or alcohol.

Find more addiction statistics here.

The Controlled Substances Act

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is a law that regulates legal and illegal drugs in the United States. Under the CSA, drugs are categorized into different “schedules” according to a drug’s perceived dangerousness and potential for dependence. For example, heroin is classified as a schedule I drug because of its illegal status and extremely addictive qualities. In contrast, legal medications, such as over-the-counter pain relievers and cough suppressants, are categorized under schedule V because of their low chances for abuse.

The CSA’s drug scheduling system exists for several reasons. In common cases, the system is used by judges to help them determine sentences for drug-related crimes. It is also helpful for medical professionals when writing prescriptions.

Learn more about the Controlled Substances Act and addiction.

Polydrug Use

A majority of people who seek treatment for a substance use disorder are struggling with a dependence on more than one type of substance. Polydrug use involves the consumption of one type of substance with another. This is often done to intensify the effects of a certain drug or achieve a stronger high.

In some cases, a person may take a stimulant, such as Adderall, to counteract the sedative effects of an opioid such as oxycodone. However, mixing multiple types of drugs together is extremely dangerous, and can potentially lead to overdose and death.

Learn more about the dangers of polydrug use.

The Top 10 Most Common Addictions

Millions of people around the world struggle with substance abuse. Some of the most common drugs that impede people’s lives include:

  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • And more.

Read all ten of the most common addictions here.

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