• What Is Addiction & Who Does It Affect?

About Addiction

What Is Addiction?

Table of Contents

Addiction, clinically referred to as substance use disorder, is a complex, chronic, and potentially fatal brain disease that affects millions of people. Addiction has long been misunderstood and stigmatized in society, with many who believe that addiction is a choice and can be easily fixed. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. More than 23 million adults in the United States have struggled with problematic drug use. Addiction costs the United States $600 billion annually, and evidence based treatment can help to reduce this cost.

Addiction results from many biological, psychological, interpersonal and social factors. What may start as recreational and social drinking or drug use can sometimes lead to misuse or addiction. Like other diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. Genetics likely play an important part in the development of substance use disorders, however they are not the only factor. Many different life experiences can lead to the development of a substance use disorder.

Signs of Addiction

Addiction involves the continued use of substances despite negative consequences. It often includes impairment of functioning that can impact everyday decisions. Some signs of substance use disorder include:

  • Strain in family or social relationships
  • Decline in physical health
  • Failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, home or school
  • Legal trouble
  • Financial trouble

Depending on the substance, signs of addiction can be different. Learn more about signs of addiction for those using any or a combination of the following:







How Does Addiction Affect The Brain?

Addiction affects the brain on many levels. While basic enjoyable activities release dopamine in the brain, drugs and alcohol can release a surge of dopamine and cause a sense of euphoria. Over time, someone who is in active addiction will develop a tolerance, and therefore need more and more of the substance to achieve the same desired effects. This can lead to the experience of using not only to feel the substance’s euphoric effects but to also feel “normal.”

In active addiction, the brain categorizes substance use as a survival mechanism. When people in active addiction experience cravings, the feeling of “needing” to drink or use comes from the midbrain, which is responsible for survival and rewards.

Prolonged drug and alcohol use can also affect communication between the midbrain and the prefrontal cortex, which allows the ability to problem solve, make decisions, and exert self-control. Prolonged substance use alters the brain and reduces the person’s ability to make sound decisions and diminishes impulse control.

Who Does Addiction Affect?


In 2018, nearly 28% of students in grades 8-12 reported having used an illicit drug at some point in their lives.

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Veterans & Active Military

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30% of active-duty service members partake in binge drinking habits.

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College Students

37% of college students have used an illicit drug, with marijuana as the most frequently used drug among college students.

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According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, people who identify as LGBTQ face social stigma and discrimination that significantly increases the risk of behavioral health issues like developing a substance use disorder.

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Elderly & Older Adults

According to Today’s Geriatric Medicine, 8 million older adults exhibit symptoms of substance use disorder.

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First Responders

According to the US Firefighters Association, as many as 10% of firefighters may be misusing substances.

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Myths About Addiction

  • Addiction Is Mind Over Matter

    Addiction has incorrectly been described as a moral failing, and is still highly stigmatized. A misconception is that those who suffer from substance use disorders do not have enough willpower to overcome this disease, when in reality many people recover from substance use disorders. The notion that people suffering from addiction are “lazy” ignores the underlying mental health and socio-economic factors that can drive addiction. Recreational drug and alcohol use is a choice, however in active addiction, due to changes in the midbrain, substance use is experienced as a survival need. Evidenced based treatment is one of the most effective ways to heal from addiction.

  • You Have To Hit Rock Bottom To Seek Help

    Addiction is often portrayed in pop-culture, movies, and TV in its most severe states: losing housing, resorting to crime, losing relationships or spending huge sums of money on drugs. This perpetuates a belief that people need to hit a “rock bottom” in order to reach out for help or receive treatment. Many believe that if their situation is not bad enough, they don’t need addiction treatment or won’t benefit from it. In fact substance use exists on a spectrum, and people can benefit from treatment regardless of whether their use is mild, moderate or severe.

    Some seek treatment after family and friends have confronted them about their issues, some after a legal incident related to substances, while others reach out for help on their own. Each person’s experience is different and finding freedom from addiction is a deeply personal journey that should not be compared to anyone else’s.

  • People Are Only Addicted to One Substance

    People who are addicted to one substance can easily become addicted to other substances. Likewise, certain behaviors like gambling, sex and shopping can produce a “drug-like” dopamine effect in the brain. Rather than switching from one substance to another, addiction recovery is about changing one’s relationship with substances so that they are not relying on them to take care of fundamental needs. Some people achieve this through reducing their use while others are most successful when they practice abstinence from all substances.

  • Ecstasy and Party Drugs

    Ecstasy, known as a party drug is also one of the most popular drugs on college campuses. Known for its euphoric effects, it also goes by the name Molly, or MDMA – which is ecstasy in its purest form. Other party drugs can include Cocaine. Often mixed with other drugs to produce a stronger high, they can create severe side effects.

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