Understanding Addiction

By Zeenat Farooq

Addiction is the physical or psychological dependence on a substance that is beyond the control of the person. Usually, its demands go higher with time. Earlier, addiction was used only for psychoactive drugs that cross the blood-brain barrier and cause temporary changes in nerve impulses. Nowadays, addiction can be used for any physical or psychological thing which the person cannot stop consuming, willingly and develops withdrawal symptoms when its use is reduced or stopped. Psychological addiction includes gambling, indiscriminate use of internet or television.

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Substance addiction not only encompasses banned drugs like heroin, alcohol or even tobacco but also widely includes many prescription drugs like codeine. A number of pain killers are also included in the list. In fact, researchers in the University of Nebraska, USA, have recently confirmed that the abuse of prescription drugs in USA and many other countries has reached epidemic proportions.


People often start consuming the substance out of curiosity, peer pressure or as a means coping with stress. However, the nature of addictive substances is such that these cause changes in signal transmission to nerve cells, making one feel heightened and relieved. With time, the amount of substance needed to achieve the same effect increases gradually and the patient is said to have developed tolerance.


Substance dependence causes very powerful cravings and psychological trauma. The person cannot stop taking it without help and without experiencing powerful withdrawal symptoms like bouts of anger, fear, bad temper, moodiness, body cramps, feeling of guilt and shame, frustration, depression. This happens because the blood levels of the substance fall below the threshold that is otherwise required by the addict.

Insomnia is a common symptom associated with addiction. With some substances, trembling, sweating, hallucinations, seizures and violence are also associated. Diarrhoea or constipation is also a common symptom of tobacco addiction.

The addict often continues consuming the substance even after developing a medical condition as a consequence of it. For example, a smoker continues smoking even after developing lung cancer. Addiction also tames at the cost of social life. Quite often, the social and personal life of an addict is severely affected. Such people tend to spend less time with family or friends and develop disinterest in social activities. An addicted person always ensures to maintain a good supply of the substance. This can lead to financial compromises on part of family, spoils relations. It may also lead to issues related to law because the person can sometimes go to extreme limits to arrange money or can procure the substance through unlawful means.

The person always feels that he needs the drug to deal with his problems and over time develops an obsession for it. In many cases, the person takes the substance alone or in secrecy and denies consumption or any issues related to it. In many cases or under some situations, the person takes over doses of the substance. This can lead to blackouts (forgetting periods of time) or other symptoms like sore throat or persistent cough in smokers.

Risk Factors

It is a factor which increases the likelihood of developing a condition. Although any person of any age, gender, class or profession can become addicted to any substance but there are some risk factors associated with substance addiction.

A person with a family history of addiction is more likely to develop the same addiction. Albiet rare, people with a certain genetic make-up tend to become more addicted to some substances. For example, it has been seen that some people start smoking or  drinking as a recreation but while some of them can stop it easily while as others cannot do so even after having a strong will power. Researchers from the University of Granada, Spain, have revealed in a study that “the lack of endorphin is hereditary, and thus there is a genetic predisposition to become addicted to alcohol”. Response of brain cell receptors to nicotine also varies. Therefore some people can be seen to smoke occasionally throughout their life without ever becoming addicted while as others become full blown addicts.

Children of parents with problems in personal life find it more difficult to cope with problems. They often feel lonely, stressed and do not have strong attachment to parents and often are more susceptible to certain forms of addiction.

Although addiction can possibly influence any person but research suggests men are twice more likely to develop substance addiction than females.

People with almost all forms of mental illness are also more prone to addiction.


In most of the cases, the concerns about the addict are raised by a family member or close friend rather than the patient himself. In this situation, referral to a general practitioner should be done as an immediate step. Some of the basic queries that the practitioner would raise are if the patient is aware of the problems associated with the substance and how often is the substance consumed. Tobacco or cigarette addiction can be dealt with at this stage effectively whereas in case of alcohol or drug addiction, referral to specialists like neurologist, medical expert and psychiatrist is made. The patient also needs social and family support to deal with the psychological aspect of the problem because in many cases, the addict is looked down by other people which leads to either denial of the problem by the addict or psychological disturbances because of not being able to stop substance consumption.

Once the patient realises the addiction status, there follows a cascade of steps like psychotherapy, consultation with self help groups and medication. The particular treatment plan depends upon the type and severity of addiction.



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