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What is Addiction?

Addiction, also commonly referred to as “substance abuse” or “substance use disorder,” can manifest in many different ways for different people, but at its core it generally means three things: an intense craving for something; losing control over when and how often it’s used; and continued involvement with it even in the face of adverse physical, mental, and social consequences. People can be addicted to not only substances, but certain behaviors as well, such as gambling, shopping, or sex; but drugs and alcohol can have much greater harmful or hazardous effects on a person’s health and life. Almost 1 in 10 Americans are addicted to alcohol or drugs, and only about 1 in 10 of those who need treatment for addiction receive it. Addiction is considered a disease by most experts in the medical and psychiatric communities, one that has a strong detrimental effect on the human brain. Fortunately, like most diseases it can be successfully prevented, treated, and managed by professionals in those fields.

There are many factors that can contribute to a person’s vulnerability to addiction; these can include genetics, family history, mental disorders, traumatic experiences in childhood, or drug use at an early age. An addiction often begins when someone is looking for a way to feel good, or something to temporarily overcome physical or emotional pain. People feel pleasure when basic needs such as hunger, thirst and sex are satisfied. In most cases, these feelings of pleasure are caused by the release of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. Most addictive substances cause the brain to release high levels of these same chemicals that are associated with pleasure or reward.

Drug and alcohol addiction

Over time, continuing to use addictive substances can drastically alter the structure and function of the brain. When these changes occur, a person will stop simply using the substance to feel good and instead need it just to feel normal. The individual will also experience intense desires or cravings for the addictive substance. Long-term use will also have a dramatic negative effect on judgment and behavior. It will eventually drive a compulsion to obtain and use alcohol or drugs even when the addict knows there are harmful or dangerous consequences. These changes in the brain can linger even once an addict stops using substances, leaving them vulnerable to physical and environmental cues that they associate with substance use, also known as triggers, which can increase the risk of a relapse.

A person addicted to substance use may also be suffering from other conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, or eating disorders. This is referred to as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis. Though the two are often closely linked, addiction does not always cause mental health problems, or vice-versa; either condition may bring about the other, or be entirely unrelated. Addictive substances are often used to self-medicate symptoms of depression or anxiety; substance usage can increase the risk for mental disorders; and the use of drugs and alcohol can worsen the symptoms of an existing disorder.

Recognizing the Signs

Are you concerned that a friend or family member may be suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction? Addicts often try to conceal their symptoms and deny they have a problem, or insist it isn’t a serious one. If you’re worried that a friend or family member might be addicted to a harmful substance, the following warning signs can be an indicator:


  • Bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Deterioration of physical appearance, personal grooming habits
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination


  • Unexplained need for money or financial problems; may borrow or steal to get it
  • Drop in attendance and performance at work or school
  • Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors
  • Sudden change in friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies
  • Frequently getting into trouble (fights, accidents, illegal activities)


  • Unexplained change in personality or attitude
  • Sudden mood swings, irritability, or angry outbursts
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation, or giddiness
  • Lack of motivation; appears lethargic or “spaced out”
  • Appears fearful, anxious, or paranoid, with no reason

If you need more information on addictive substances, their effects, and their dangers, Sober Nexus has a comprehensive listing of commonly abused drugs.  

Am I an addict?

Determining whether you have an addiction isn’t a completely straightforward ordeal, and it can be different for everyone who suffers from it. And admitting that you might be an addict is no easier, particularly due to the social stigma and shame that accompanies addiction. But acknowledging you have a problem is a first, important step on the road to recovery.

Answering “yes,” or even “maybe,” to any of the following questions suggests you might have a problem with addiction and should, at minimum, consider consulting a health care provider for further evaluation and guidance.

  • Do you use more of the substance or engage in the behavior more often than in the past?
  • Do you need more of it to get the same level of pleasure from it as you used to, i.e. increased tolerance?
  • Do you have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have the substance or engage in the behavior?
  • Do you give a higher priority to the substance or behavior than other activities or obligations, including social activities, work or school, and family?
  • Have you ever lied to anyone about your use of the substance or extent of your behavior?

If you or a family member is suffering from addiction, you're not alone. Sober Nexus is here to get you started on the road to recovery.

Do you need assistance finding help for an addiction? Call us today at (888) 70-NEXUS or chat with us now.

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