AddictionIt is estimated that over 40 million Americans over the age of 12 are addicted to a substance or behavior that can be harmful to themselves or others. During a recent study, it was discovered that 1 in 7 Americans are addicted to alcohol, marijuana, PCP, LSD, opioids, caffeine, nicotine, food, or gambling.

When a person succumbs to an addiction, it can prove extremely difficult and seem impossible to break away or quit on their own. Understanding addiction and how it develops and affects the body can help people recognize addiction and seek treatment for themselves or others.

Addiction is a disease

Addiction is a complex disease and dysfunction of the brain’s reward, motivation, and memory system. With addiction, the brain undergoes a chemical change causing your body to crave a substance or certain behavior through a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of a reward, regardless of the consequences. Addiction may change regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment, and memory. Often by the time a person realizes they need help, their addiction has already taken over their life physically, emotionally, and socially.

There are four main stages of addiction:

  • Experimentation – the initial attempt
  • Social or regular use– using or engaging socially or in social situations
  • or high risk – use or engagement with disregard
  • Dependency -using or engaging on a daily basis, or several times a day despite negative effects

The media portrays people suffering from addiction as criminals or individuals with moral shortcomings, but there is no face of addiction. Anyone can develop patterns of abuse or risky behaviors that may develop into addiction regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, culture, or economic status.

Like many diseases, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. There are a few risk factors that can be associated with addiction, but having a few of these factors does not mean they will become addicted, just that their individual risk is increased.

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Psychological factors (stress, personality, depression, anxiety, personality or psychiatric disorders and conditions)
  • Environmental influences (exposure to abuse or trauma, addiction among peers or family, access or exposure, or peer pressure)

How addiction changes the brain?

People feel pleasure when the basic needs of the body are met, even if we don’t acknowledge it as pleasure, our body is pleased when we eat or drink or engage in certain activities. When we feel happy or excited, the brain releases dopamine, a certain chemical in the brain that triggers the body’s reward or pleasure response.

Under addiction, the brain responds the same when a person uses a substance or engages in addictive behavior and produces large amounts of dopamine which triggers the body’s reward system. Over time, those developing addictions will use more of a substance or engage in behaviors longer to achieve the same ‘high’. After repeated abuse, the brain becomes unable to produce normal amounts of dopamine on its own, meaning the person will struggle to find pleasure or enjoyment in many day-to-day activities without being under the influence or effect of their addiction. An individual may even experience intense desires or cravings for a substance or behavior despite harmful or dangerous consequences.

It is because of this chemical change that a person who struggles with addiction may not be able to overcome the condition on their own. Though a person may have control in the beginning, after the brain chemistry is changed they will not be able to control their response to the addiction since their willpower will be impaired.

Symptoms or warning signs of addiction

Identifying addiction can be a complicated process. While many signs of addiction are obvious, some may prove more difficult. Everyone is affected differently by addiction, but here are some common symptoms or warning signs:

  • Changes in personality
  • Displaying a lack of self-control
  • Dismissive of how their addiction causes problems
  • Inability to stop on their own
  • Increased anxiety or sensitivity to stress
  • Increased secrecy
  • Reacting negatively when they do not have their ‘fix’
  • Lack of emotional response or trouble identifying emotions
  • Seeking social situations that encourage a substance or behavior addiction
  • Sudden changes in mood or behavior
  • Weight loss or changes in physical appearance
  • Withdraw from normal social contacts


Diagnosis is often given by a primary healthcare provider who has examined the patient for symptoms of addiction and confirmed that the patient meets the specific and scientific criteria. Once the addiction is diagnosed, treatment plans can be discussed and the road to recovery begins.

Each person’s addiction situation is unique and as such their recovery program will be tailored specifically to them to ensure a successful recovery. Often, the best treatment plans for addiction are comprehensive and long-term as addiction affects multiple aspects of one’s life. These treatments are designed to address the individual’s situation and any co-occurring conditions requiring a combination of medical care, psychotherapy, medication, rehabilitation, and support groups.

For more information on addiction or to schedule a consultation, please contact the Addiction Recovery Center of Virginia today.

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