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What You Need to Know About Addiction

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by substance use or repeated behaviors that are immediately rewarding but ultimately have damaging, long-lasting effects. Examples of addiction include the use of substances like alcohol, opioids, cocaine, or nicotine or behaviors such as gambling, sex, or even using the Internet. While the initial decision to take a drug or engage in a behavior is typically voluntary, consistent and repeated use or activity can lead to changes in the brain that impact a person’s self-control and willpower, making it extremely difficult to treat without professional help.

An Explanation of Addiction

An addiction typically stems from the release of dopamine, a chemical messenger that’s known as the “feel-good neurotransmitter.” A reward system that is functioning properly motivates a person to practice behaviors that are needed to thrive, such as eating and experiencing human connection. When substance abuse or unhealthy behaviors become associated with these dopamine surges, the neurotransmitter serves to reinforce the pleasurable but damaging action, encouraging repetition.

As the drug use or behavior continues, the brain responds by reducing the impact of the reward circuit, lessening the “high” achieved (something called tolerance). Despite knowing about the dangers of drug use or negative behaviors, sufferers continue to chase after that initial “high,” which only worsens their addiction. Long-term addiction causes other changes to chemical systems in the brain, affecting functions such as learning, judgment, decision-making, stress, memory, and more.

A person’s risk of addiction is influenced by multiple factors, including:

  • Biology: A person’s genes contribute to nearly 50 percent of their risk for developing an addiction. Additionally, factors related to gender, ethnicity, and other mental health disorders may also play a role.

  • Environment: A person’s environment consists of multiple influences, ranging from family and friends to childhood experiences and economic position. Other factors, such as early exposure to drugs, peer pressure, and abuse, also contribute to addictive behaviors.

  • Development: It’s no surprise that, the earlier the drug use or dangerous behavior begins, the more likely it is to become an addiction. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to addiction and the precarious behaviors that may follow, as the areas of the brain that control decision-making and self-control are still developing.

Treatment and Recovery for Addiction

It’s difficult to understand the power of addiction. Many sufferers want to quit but struggle to do so — or they may succeed in quitting but then quickly fall back into their old ways, which is oftentimes part of the disease. In fact, addiction is considered a “relapsing disease”: People in recovery from addiction and/or substance use disorder are at high risk for returning to their bad habits even years after taking the drug or practicing the behavior for the last time.

Still, despite the strong chance of relapse, treatment and recovery are possible. As I mentioned earlier, addiction alters the brain and makes quitting difficult, even for sufferers who want to quit and know it’s the right thing to do. Because of this chemical reaction, it often takes more than a strong desire or self-led attempt to stop. Treatment options include individual, family, and/or group therapy or 12-step or harm reduction programs, all of which must be consistent and completed to achieve full recovery.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, C.E.D.S. at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today.


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