Addiction: What Substance Abuse Looks Like


Addiction is sometimes called substance use disorder, although it is possible to experience addiction to non-substances such as the internet. It is a disease that many struggle with. Most people are not aware that addiction is, in fact, a disease rather than a choice. While the path to addiction is often due to unhealthy coping choices, unknown to the individual, it gradually becomes a disease. The information below is aimed at giving you more information about what it looks like.


You can identify an addiction if there is:

  • A compulsive, chronic need to use or experience something (substance or activity)
  • A continuation of indulging despite harmful effects on some or all of these levels — physiological (body), psychological (mind), social (relationships)
  • Lack of self-control and regulation 
  • Anxiety and withdrawal symptoms due to lack of access/abstinence from the addiction
  • An increase in tolerance of quantity or intensity as the addiction continues (more is needed as time goes on)
  • Temporary satisfaction that needs repeated indulging to achieve


Substances: Alcohol, narcotics (cocaine, heroin, etc), prescription pain killers and sleep aids, food, tobacco, marijuana, etc.

Behaviors: Gambling, sex, shopping, internet browsing & social media, phones, work, etc.

Causes / Risk factors 

There is no doubt that certain substances and behaviors are highly addictive. Yet, some people indulge and do not get addicted. For example, many people gamble or drink alcohol from time to time and do not get addicted. Some dabble in hard drugs once in a while and do not get addicted. So why is it that others do? Research shows that the factors below contribute to the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction.


“It’s not the pain that ruins us, but the things we do to avoid that pain” – Abbot, A Letter to the King (Netflix). There is a lot of research that indicates that, victims of trauma, especially trauma from childhood, are more likely to develop an addiction than anyone who did not experience trauma. 1 2 3 4 5 Besides experiencing the trauma, the victims usually have lingering conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 6 Addiction in this case is often linked to the desire to escape or avoid the difficult symptoms like nightmares and insomnia, anxiety, depression, etc., that come with recollecting such events. It can also be a way for individuals to exercise some control in stopping recurring memories. So here, addiction plays the role of a coping mechanism, for the individual.


Research has found genes linked to addiction. Meaning that, a person who inherits these genes is more likely to develop an addiction, than some who does not. For example, drugs like cocaine have a higher percentage of heritability than marijuana, although both have high percentages.A number of factors come into play to determine behavior and health conditions. So gene inheritance (heredity), does not doom a person to addiction. It just increases the person’s likelihood, as compared to another person without this gene.


Environmental factors such as peer pressure can influence a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction. In homes where parental supervision is lacking, this can be even more likely. It was previously believed that drug abuse was a problem of poverty. However, we are fast realizing that this is not the case. Cocaine and marijuana are drugs used by people of all socio-economic levels. In the case of prescription medication, it is more common in higher-income backgrounds because of the cost. Finally, physical environments such as college campuses, neighborhoods with high criminal activity, casinos, night clubs and bars, and some corporate institutions, provide easy access to addictive activities. 


While this goes without saying, the repetition of an addictive activity or use of an addictive substance increases a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction. The more you do or use, the more you become dependent/addicted on whatever it is to provide you with whatever pleasure or relief you want. 

 Health problems

A number of prescription medications for treating serious health conditions, are highly addictive. Prescription pain medication is one good example. While some people deliberately seek out these medications for recreational use, others become addicted by accident. Some people who are prescribed these pain meds after a surgery or to manage some kind of pain, become addicted. As a result, all well-intentioned physicians are supposed to warn individuals and their families of the dangers of taking some of these medications. 


The effects of addiction can be quite devastating, both to the individual, those close to them, and the society as a whole. There are severe mental, physiological, and social effects on the individual. These range from developing mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and reduced function in some organs, loss of financial stability, to loss of close relationships due to the emotional turmoil caused. Most people who suffer from addictions are eventually unable to be productive members of society because of the progressive nature of the disorder. 


Addiction drastically alters brain functioning. Among others, a person’s ability to experience pleasure is significantly highjacked.8 In virtually all cases of substance addictions, some organs start to lose optimal functioning and develop disease. The most common organs affected are the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and stomach. 9


Addiction alters the way a person thinks and feels. The individual often becomes a slave to the next high and how to achieve it. It is common for individuals suffering from depression to develop depression and anxiety disorders. 


Individuals with addictions often get to a point where they drain their finances to gain access to their addiction. They may exhaust their savings, borrow money, take or steal from friends, loved ones, or even strangers. When money is no longer an option, sometimes, the individual engages in barter trade, which might include selling their bodies. For those who can afford it, they or their families pay large sums for rehabilitation centers, and this usually happens more than once.  


Addiction often puts and strain on and destroys a person’s close relationships. Many families fall apart due to the devastating effects their loved one’s addiction causes. Society loses a productive member because being able to focus on daily tasks usually ends as the addiction intensifies. Sometimes addiction leads to social vices, such as theft and destruction of property, and affects societies well being and safety. 


Interventions to help treat addictions include medication, in-patient rehab centers, professional counseling/psychotherapy, support groups, and abstinence (going cold turkey). It is very important to note that with most addiction cases, it gets to a point where the individual is no longer able to control their desire for the thing they are addicted to. Their brain tells them they need it to survive so they operate in “survival mode”. This is why pleading with the individual to stop often is unsuccessful. There is also the danger of death with some withdrawal symptoms of substance addictions. So it is always best to seek the services and help of trained professionals. 


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  1. Cross C., Ashley L.(2007). Trauma and Addiction: Implications for Helping Professionals. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 45(1) 24-31. doi: 10.3928/02793695-20070101-07
  1. Moustafa, A.A., Parkes, D., Fitzgerald, L. et al. The relationship between childhood trauma, early-life stress, and alcohol and drug use, abuse, and addiction: An integrative review. Curr Psychol (2018).
  1. Garami, J., Valikhani, A., Parkes, D., Haber, P., Mahlberg, J., Misiak, B., … Moustafa, A. A. (2019). Examining Perceived Stress, Childhood Trauma and Interpersonal Trauma in Individuals With Drug Addiction. Psychological Reports, 122(2), 433–450.
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  1. How Addiction Hijacks the Brain. (2011, July). Retrieved April 11, 2020, from
  1. Organ Damage: How Addiction Affects the Body in Various Ways and How to Heal After Recovery. (2017, October 12). Retrieved April 11, 2020, from

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