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When you’re in the throes of substance abuse, it can be hard to spot a growing addiction problem. Friends and loved ones can see it. If you’re wondering “what is addiction,” there’s a good chance you’re starting to see it, too. Addiction develops in stages that can be easy to miss, especially when drug or alcohol cravings start vying for your attention. Asking yourself, “am I an addict” may well be the first step towards seeing the problem.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction may begin with the physical effects of drugs or alcohol, but how these effects impact your thinking and emotions drive the definition of addiction. With frequent substance abuse, the mind comes to rely on the “high” that results from drugs to the point where reliving this experience starts to take top priority in your life. These changes happen even faster in cases where underlying emotional issues, such as depression or anxiety, are there to fuel substance abuse behaviors. Ultimately, addiction has more to do with how you think and behave, causing you to choose drugs or alcohol over everything else, be it a job, a relationship, or even your life.

Stages Leading to Addiction

While it’s possible to get addicted to certain drugs the first time you use them, addiction typically develops over time as the effects of the drug disrupt the brain’s chemical system. With the most commonly abused drugs (heroin, cocaine, prescription pain pills), the “high” experience stems from a massive dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine is a primary neurotransmitter chemical that regulates critical functions throughout the brain and body, including:

  • Motor control or movement
  • Feelings of pleasure
  • Learning
  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Pain perception
  • Attention
  • Reward-motivated behavior

In effect, the answer to the question, “what is addiction” starts with dopamine. With repeated drug (or alcohol) abuse, dopamine levels become imbalanced. This causes the brain to become increasingly dependent on the drug’s effects to produce the amount of dopamine your body needs to function normally.

Over time, these developments set off a series of changes that lead straight to addiction’s door:

Increasing Tolerance Levels

Tolerance levels have to do with the brain’s sensitivity to a drug. With addictive drugs, the brain cells that produce dopamine become less and less sensitive to the drug’s effects. This means you have to keep taking larger doses to experience the “high” effects of the drug. This development causes a person to take increasingly larger or more frequent doses, or both.

Withdrawal Effects

As tolerance levels increase, the affected brain cells grow weaker in their ability to produce needed dopamine levels. When you start experiencing withdrawal effects, physical dependence on the drug’s effects has taken hold. Withdrawal effects reflect the state of chemical imbalance in the brain caused by the ongoing effects of the drug. These effects may take the form of:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Mood swings
  • Agitation
  • Confused thinking

Many try to gain relief from withdrawal by taking more of the drug, which helps for a while but only worsens the next round of withdrawal. In effect, increasing tolerance levels and withdrawal form a vicious cycle that keeps you using the drug. At this point, the question, “am I an addict” may start to rear its ugly head.

Addiction

The definition of addiction wouldn’t be complete without discussing how addiction forms within the brain’s chemical system. And it begins and ends with dopamine.

Dopamine’s role in regulating reward-motivated behavior lies at the root of a growing addiction.

Under normal, drug-free conditions, dopamine levels increase whenever you engage in something that makes you feel good. An area of the brain known as the reward system tracks dopamine levels to determine which behaviors bring about positive results on any given day. Positive results may include:

  • The feeling you get after eating a good meal
  • Feelings of accomplishment after meeting a goal
  • Sexual pleasure
  • Feeling refreshed after having a cool drink on a hot day

From the brain’s perspective, the “high” experience you get from using an addictive drug is also positive. When a positive result happens repeatedly, your brain reward system hardwires this behavior into your daily routine. This means getting and using drugs becomes a need, much like the body’s need for food, water, and sex.

Am I an Addict? Signs to Watch for

More than anything else, signs of addiction will appear in your behaviors and choices. As addiction takes hold, your life starts to revolve around getting and using drugs (or alcohol). What was once casual drug use turns into a compulsive habit where cravings for more of the drug dictate your comings and goings. Before long, getting the next “fix” will become so important that you’re willing to place anything and everything at risk, including your job, relationships, and self-respect.

Emotional Signs of Addiction

  • Anger
  • Defensiveness
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Making excuses for drug-using behaviors
  • Blaming others for your shortcomings
  • Denying you have a problem
  • Minimizing your drug problem and the negative consequences it creates

Behavioral Signs of Addiction

  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Missing days at work or school
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Money problems
  • Problems sleeping
  • Problems with the law, such as DUIs
  • Change in a social group (spending more time with other drug users)
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, such as spending time with family or a hobby

Things to Keep in Mind

If you see yourself or someone you know in the above descriptions, know that an addiction problem doesn’t go away on its own. Addiction will continue to get worse for as long as substance abuse continues. Also, know that if you want to stop, you don’t have to do it alone.

Detox and addiction treatment programs provide the level of support you need to break addiction’s hold on your life. Like addiction, recovery happens in stages, but nothing happens until you take that first step.

If you’re struggling with a drug or alcohol problem and seeking substance abuse programs in New Jersey or New York, contact Ascendant today. It will be the most important step you can take at this point in your life. Our New York alcohol detox and treatment program can help you regain control of your life and begin your recovery journey with fresh hope and support.

Was this article helpful? Follow our blog for more information about addiction, substance use, and how to get help. Recent posts include topics such as the detox drug myth and the stages of addiction. 

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Epiphany Wellness, The Heights Treatment, Infinite Recovery, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed August 30, 2022