Understanding the Psychology and Physiology of Addiction

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Addiction is a public health concern that impacts millions of individuals. In 2020, approximately 40.3 million individuals, 12 years of age or older, were diagnosed with a substance use disorder. (1) In 2021, the number of individuals meeting the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder increased to approximately 46.3 million individuals. Those experiencing substance use, and even their loved ones, may not understand why addiction occurs in some in not others. There are different psychological models that help explain why addiction happens.

Regardless of why you or a loved one have become dependent on a substance, seeking evidence-based treatment is the best way to overcome addiction. At Guardian Recovery, we offer comprehensive treatment options for those experiencing alcohol and other drug addiction. Providing psychoeducationtherapeutic interventions, and medication assisted treatment, we are dedicated to offering those experiencing substance use with various treatment options all in one place. Contact us today to begin your recovery journey.

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What Is the Psychological Model of Addiction?

Psychological models of addiction are tools used to help understand why individuals develop maladaptive behaviors and addiction. These models hypothesize that substance use originates due to psychological impairments or abnormalities.

Popular psychological models of addiction include: (3)

  • The Learning Theory – This model focuses on the way that an individual is raised and how this impacts their behavior. There are 3 different learning theories included in the learning theory.
    • Classical Conditioning – A way of learning where an individual associates a neutral stimulus with another stimulus that causes an automatic reaction. This model states that individuals associate different environmental cues, or triggers, with their addictive behaviors. For example, an individual who always drinks alcohol when they are stressed will be more likely to drink everytime they experience a stressful event.
    • Operant Conditioning – A way of learning that states that behaviors are strengthened through rewards, which makes the behavior more likely to be repeated. Every time an individual engages in substance use, they are rewarded with pleasant feelings and chemicals in the brain.
    • Social Learning Theory – A model which states that behavior is learned by observing and imitating others.
  • Psychopathology Model – This model states that there is a high probability that those with mental health disorders often use substances to self medicate. This model also focuses on how certain childhood behaviors and experiences can lead to the development of substance use. Research has found a correlation between addiction and mental health disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity, conduct, oppositional, mood, and personality disorders. (4)
  • Psychoanalytic Model – This model states that substance use is influenced by unresolved trauma, conflict, and one’s ego. This model focuses on how some individuals may use substances to help combat the conflict within their mind. This model also states that childhood relationships, or the failure to bond with one’s caregivers can lead to the development of substance use disorders.

How Does Addiction Develop in the Brain?

Addiction involves experiencing a loss of control in terms of addictive behaviors. The brain plays a big role in the development of addiction. When an individual engages in substance use, the brain is flooded with the release of various neurotransmitters. (5) One of these neurotransmitters, dopamine, also known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter, is involved in feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. Dopamine is naturally produced in the brain. Substances create a surge of dopamine each time an individual engages in one. (6) This causes the brain to rely on a substance in order to produce dopamine in the brain. With chronic and repeated substance use, an individual then begins to develop tolerance. Tolerance occurs when an individual needs larger amounts of a substance, when compared to previous uses, in order to reach the desired effect. If an individual has developed a tolerance for a substance, stopping or cutting back on that substance would lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Does Addiction Physically or Chemically Alter the Brain?

The brain is an extremely complex structure. Repeated substance use can cause the brain to be both physically and chemically altered. Substances can interfere with the way that signals in the brain communicate with one another. Over time, areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, decision-making, and judgment physically change. (7)

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Development of Compulsive & Chronic Behavior

Chronic substance use can lead to the development of compulsive behaviors. Compulsive behaviors are thoughts, urges, and actions that continue despite an individual experiencing negative consequences. As an individual continues to engage in substance use, they may experience compulsions to engage in it, or to engage in addictive behaviors, such as gambling or risky behaviors.

What Are Common Physiological Symptoms of Dependence & Withdrawal?

There are physiological signs and symptoms associated with dependence and withdrawal. Dependence refers to an individual’s need to depend or rely on a substance. Withdrawal occurs when an individual suddenly stops or cuts back a substance that they regularly engage in.

Common physiological symptoms associated with dependence and addiction include:

  • Consuming more of a substance than intended for longer periods of time.
  • Experiencing strong physical and emotional cravings.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop or cut back the substance.
  • Experiencing a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed before substance use began.
  • Withdrawing socially from friends and family
  • Engaging in substance use despite experiencing personal, relational, or occupational consequences.
  • Developing a physical tolerance.

Common symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Insomnia or difficulties falling or staying asleep,
  • Mood swings.
  • Difficulty controlling emotions.
  • Cognitive impairments such as issues with memory, concentration, and decision making.
  • Experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
  • Apathy or low energy.
  • Difficulties managing stressful events or stimuli.

How Is the Psychological Aspect of Addiction Treated?

Research has found that the combination of medication assisted treatment and therapy are effective treatment options for those experiencing addiction. Medication assisted treatment can help reduce the negative symptoms that are associated with withdrawal. At Guardian Recovery, we offer various therapeutic options and treatment modalities to help individuals develop adaptive coping techniques needed for sobriety.

Therapeutic interventions utilized at Guardian Recovery include:

  • Individual Therapy – Individuals meet one-on-one with a licensed clinician in order to process any part of their lives that may have contributed to substance use, and to develop healthy communication and coping skills.
  • Family Therapy – Individuals seeking treatment meet with a licensed clinician, and their family members, in order to develop healthy communication skills and to process how substance use has impacted their family as a whole.
  • Group Therapy – Individuals meet with others receiving treatment, fostering the development of community and belongingness.

Different therapeutic modalities are utilized during therapy sessions. The specific treatment modality used is determined by the clinician and based on the individual’s treatment needs.

At Guardian Recovery, we utilize the following modalities during therapy sessions:

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Start Your Recovery Journey at Guardian Recovery

If you suspect that you or someone you love are experiencing addiction, dependence, or a substance use disorder, Guardian Recovery is here to help. Our trained clinicians are trained on the psychology of addiction, and can help you optimize your overall treatment outcome. One of our Treatment Advisors is ready to speak with you and guide you through our simple admissions process. A complimentary initial assessment will be completed in order to determine which treatment plan would be best for you. Additionally, a free, no obligation insurance benefits check can be provided upon your request in order to determine which of our treatment options is covered by your insurance coverage plan. Contact us today and start your recovery journey the guardian path way.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/03/01/fact-sheet-addressing-addiction-and-the-overdose-epidemic/
  2. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  3. https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/swk3805coursebook/chapter/ch-1-introduction-to-psychological-models-of-addiction/
  4. https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/understanding-addiction/0/steps/245171
  5. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain
  6. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain
  7. https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/addiction/brainchange

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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