The Basics of Understanding Addiction

“Why can’t you just stop?”

“What is more important, me or the drugs?”

“If you drink/use/gamble again, I’m leaving you!”

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, I am sure those phrases are all too familiar.

Addiction Defined

The DSM-5 defines addiction as “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. It is considered both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness”.

The truth is, addiction in any form, whether it’s alcohol and other drugs or behavioral (like sex, gambling, or shopping), holds great power to destroy relationships, careers, and lives. The good news, though? Lifelong recovery is possible through support groups, recovery programs, and outpatient therapy.

Substance Abuse vs. Dependence: What’s the Difference?

When someone struggles with substances, we typically think it’s pretty straightforward; a person regularly abuses alcohol, benzodiazepines, marijuana, opioids, methamphetamines, etc. Here’s the thing, though, it’s not so clean cut. Below, we’ll discuss two different levels, abuse, and dependence.

To put this simply, substance abuse is when a person excessively uses a substance in a single moment or event. For instance, a person may binge drink alcohol on weekends at a party or on vacation. They used the substance excessively, but after the party or vacation, they were able to return to their daily lives without abusing it daily.

Substance dependence is probably closer to what most people stereotype addiction to be. In this case, they are psychologically and physiologically dependent on a substance. Substance dependence is characterized by abrupt changes in mood, impulsivity, rationalization, and denial. They experience increased feelings of guilt and shame, loss of motivation, and decreased ability to enjoy past pleasurable activities.

Other Things to Look Out For

Other common signs of addiction include loss of control, engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence, and compulsive preoccupation (worrying compulsively about getting a “fix”). They may also stop being able to monitor how much and how often the user takes their drug.


Withdrawal describes the physical and mental symptoms that occur after stopping or reducing intake of a drug. Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the substance, severity of use, and length of time. Withdrawal can be life-threatening in some circumstances. Luckily, treatment centers offer safe, medically monitored detoxes for anyone struggling with substance dependence.

Common physical withdrawal symptoms:

  • sweating and/or chills
  • headaches
  • stomach and digestion problems (e.g., cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.)
  • insomnia
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • rapid heart rate and palpitations.

Common psychological withdrawal:

  • irritability
  • mood changes
  • feeling unsettled or unstable
  • intense fear disproportionate to societal norms
  • strong feelings of sadness
  • inability to feel pleasure
  • confusion or difficulty thinking clearly
  • poor concentration.


Tolerance occurs when someone uses drugs regularly, and their body adapts to the drug requiring more of it to experience its effects. Once tolerance to a substance has occurred, a person will likely experience withdrawal symptoms if they reduce or stop taking the drug.

Overall, addiction negatively affects the body physically and psychologically and interferes with relationships and other areas of life. If you believe you or your loved one is struggling with substance abuse or dependence, reach out to a recovery center and/or one of our therapists for help today!