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The Psychology Of Addiction

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 12, 2019

Addiction does not derive itself from a person’s moral failings or strength of character. It is a culmination of physical and psychological components that compel a person to go beyond casual drug use and fall prey to drug addiction.

Within our culture today, there are a variety of perspectives and theories about how substance abuse and addiction derives itself from a person’s life. One thing is clear—there is an intense element of psychology within an addiction; the way a person thinks, the way they interact with their experiences and those around them—these things all play into how substance abuse becomes an addiction.

Addiction Is Two-Fold

Physical dependence varies on a person and factors that are specific to them; these include: age, gender, ethnicity, current health, genetic predisposition, and the amount and frequency that the drug is consumed. It occurs when a person’s body becomes dependent on the substance; this dependence exists even though the sense of euphoria or pleasure the person derives from it is accompanied by harm from the use itself. Most notably this dependence is characterized by withdrawal symptoms when the drug use is significantly reduced or discontinued; a person persists at using the drug to circumvent these symptoms from appearing.

Psychological addiction is different. Within this dependence, a person’s desire and pursuit revolves around their need to experience the effects it produces; they begin to spend more and more time centered around either seeking out or using the drug. This dependence oftentimes grows out of a person’s attempts to relieve certain oppressive circumstances or emotions, such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, guilt, shame, failure, or lack of self-worth. These attempts to supplant these negative situations with a false sense of well-being by using drugs is called self-medication.

This begins a cycle, that once started, can be very hard to break. As this cycle progresses, and as a person falls deeper into addiction, both physical and psychological, they find it increasingly hard to quit using drugs. If they do stop, they are confronted with the manifestations of both types of dependence marked by a physical withdrawal, and the psychological: the emergence of fear or uncertainty, as a person is not longer fully capable of contending with their emotions on their own.

It is common that after a person ceases their drug use, even for a short time, these emotions return; due to the drug and its effect on a person’s chemistry and life, they may be even stronger than before. This reemergence often precipitates what is known as relapse, or a return to the drug use.

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How Are The Physical And Psychological Elements Connected?

Dependence is commonly linked to tolerance, the condition in which a person develops a physical dependence on the drug and it reaches a point where their current use no longer results in the effects and feelings that they desire; thus they find themselves needing to use more in order to achieve the desired effect. This is a very dangerous cycle; as you increase the amount of drugs your using, the risk proportionately increases.

In addition to a physical tolerance there is also a psychological tolerance; this element is in fact linked to the first. As a person becomes physically resistant to the effects of the drug, they may find that their mental and emotional states are not altered or boosted the way they like, thus they use more of the drug so that they might again begin to feel the relief, or social assistance that they seek.

We see how closely intertwined physical and psychological dependence are; their very components provide the foundation for the other to take hold. As a person engages in heavy drug use their body is deeply affected, changes and damage occur to the body physically and physiologically; it is these very things that can set the stage for the psychological components and damage to take root.

Substance abuse can deplete a body of essential vitamins, nutrients, and chemicals. Many of these things are key in providing the brain with the components it needs to maintain proper mental health and produce the naturally occurring feel-good chemicals.

As a person’s system is stimulated by a drug, it can also become reliant on this chemical assistance to the point that the body can eventually fail to produce enough of its own version of these chemicals on its own; thus, when a person ceases or decreases their drug use they feel mentally and emotionally bogged down.

How Drug Use Alters Your Perception Of Your Life

Habitual drug use can contort your perception of reality and alter the way that you think about your life, including your relationships and involvement in social circles. As a person falls deeper into substance abuse, they may many times begin to falsely believe that the drug is bettering their life and that they gain benefit from using it.

In fact, many times a person may begin their drug use for these reasons; as they find themselves desiring more focus, energy, sociability, or some other social or emotional enhancement, they convince themselves the drug will help them obtain and maintain these pursuits.

As a person continues to use a drug, they begin to associate the act of these feelings being alleviated with the drug itself; the painful or uncomfortable feelings are instead replaced with feelings of pleasure or euphoria. This use becomes habitual as a person begins to constantly seek the rewarding feeling of using the drug, and as the drug exerts its intense physical effects on a person, the psychological dependence makes it harder for them to contemplate quitting even if they are aware of the physical or mental risks at hand.

As they look back on areas of their life that they many have struggled with and compare them to their current life, they may falsely and dangerously think that the drug is giving them an edge, helping them to handle pressure, or aiding them in being more relaxed and personable in social situations. This can create a false impression of positive benefits that mask the negative effects of the drug use. This enforces their desire to use the drug more. This denial can be very dangerous indeed, and it is important that for a person to move towards recovery that they begin to see the harm that the drug use brings to their life.

How A Person Learns And How It Affects Addiction

The way a person learns, or in effect, the way they perceive and respond to their drug use and the effect it has on their life plays a large role in the development and proliferation of an addiction. These are the three main ways that a person learns, followed by the specific ways these learning styles can exert themselves on drug use.

Classical Conditioning: Also called respondent conditioning, this occurs due to a paired association between two things or circumstances.

When talking about substance abuse, you will often hear the terms “cues” or “triggers.” A cue or trigger is something such as a person, place, event, or situation that stimulates a person’s desire (a craving) to engage in drug use.

These triggers often encourage two things within the world of substance abuse: increased use and relapse. As a person begins using a drug, they often create these associations without realizing it; however, eventually they do begin to perceive these connections and become mindful about trying to alleviate these cravings.

In example, if you always use a certain drug when you’re at a friend’s house, you will begin to associate that house with the drug itself. One day, as you’re driving by for a different reason—for instance, you’re on your way to get groceries—seeing the house triggers thoughts of using the drug. Now, instead of being focused on your shopping list all you can think about is to find a way to use the drug.

As a person is moving towards an addiction, and at the point where the substance use hasn’t yet formed a dependence, these thoughts may be a catalyst towards a person engaging the substance on a more frequent basis; they are cued to think about it, they desire it, and they use the substance to curb this craving. As they cycle through this process more and more, they run the risk of gaining physical and mental dependence.

For a person that is seeking to quit using drugs, and has decreased their drug use, or for a person that has even succeeded in quitting, the presence of these cues may induce a craving that can encourage them to relapse. For these reasons, it is important to strive to eliminate any cues or triggers that are linked to drug use.

Operant Conditioning: This is learning that results due to the relationship of cause and effect of a behavior and the results or consequences, such as rewards or punishments.

In order for something to become addictive, it must (at least initially) be rewarding and bring about pleasurable feelings. For someone that is consistently lonely or suffers from social anxiety, a drug may allow them the sense of confidence within a social situation to relax and be more outgoing; in turn, they begin to associate the drug with an increased sense of confidence and pleasure within social situations. They begin to use the drug to continue feeling this way; eventually, as they become dependent on it they can no longer separate the drug use from the situation. They feel that in order to derive fulfillment within a social spectrum, they must use the drug.

Unfortunately, this is to a person’s detriment; as they begin to increasingly use the drug to fulfill these expectations, it becomes nearly the only manner in which they believe they can do so. This is because as their drug use increased, the other area’s of their life that they previously derived enjoyment from, including friendships, schooling, or vocational pursuits have become strained and compromised.

The punishment aspect of this also plays a role in the formation of their dependence. If a person experiences a negative consequence as the result of their drug use (such as going to jail or the loss of a job or scholarship) before the dependence arises, it may succeed at encouraging a person to take control over their drug use before it develops into an addiction. However, if a negative consequence arises after a person has already developed an addiction, the likelihood is that this alone will not be enough to stop their drug use.

This method of learning may be employed within recovery. Motivational incentives reward a person with something that holds worth within their life. These items, such as tokens, can be used to purchase useful items; this aids them in persisting at positive and rewarding behaviors that keep them active within their recovery.

Social Learning: This is learning that occurs within social groups such as a family, your peers, or your greater community.

The prior two types of learning are based upon how a person learns from their direct experience; social learning encompasses how a person learns from observation and interaction within these groups.

It is thought, that the greatest impact of this evolves when we are young; as we witness behaviors and begin to associate them with certain emotions or circumstances we create an altered impression of the drug within our mind and memories. When we have an opportunity to engage in the behavior, in this instance drug use, we already have preconceived notions of what the drug does, or how it impacts a person’s life or social standing.

Examples are if you remember your parents, or someone else you were close to—such as a neighbor—using alcohol every time they engaged in a social gathering, or if someone smoked marijuana every time they were stressed out. It is thought that this increases the chances of a person trying a certain substance, and having an altered perception of the effect of it; equating it with fun, happiness, relaxation, or a sense of belonging.

These social implications are an important component of the substance use itself. As a person uses more and more, especially if they suffer from an addiction, it is likely that those around them that do not use, and do not agree with their use will begin to drift away. Their social circle then becomes centered primarily around the drug and people that use the drug as well. This also dangerously ensures that they are more constantly exposed to and experiencing the triggers that can perpetuate the drug use.

This makes it harder to conquer an addiction; for that reason, a person that seeks recovery must seek to establish new or rekindle old social spheres that encourage a healthy lifestyle and behaviors, while separating themselves from the people and circumstances that proliferate the drug use and unhealthy behaviors. It is for these reasons that some people may find support groups to be so effective.

Implications Within Treatment

An article published in the journal Addiction cites that “the change in the persistent behavior, not the absence of the chemical alone, improves the likelihood of future abstinence.” It is for this reason that for treatment to be successful, it must seek to not only alleviate the physical impact or presence of the drug, but to help a person contend with the circumstances, triggers, learning patterns, and psychology behind their addiction.

Let Us Help You Understand What You Can Do About Your Addiction

Do you want to quit using drugs, but find you’ve been unable to do so? Are you overwhelmed with certain situations that make it hard to say no? If you’d like to learn ways to handle and change your behavior so you can conquer your addiction and get your life back, please don’t delay, and contact us at so we can help you to find the care and recovery that you deserve.

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