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What is Drug Addiction — and How Can it be Treated?

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on July 1, 2024

Drug addiction is a complex and challenging condition that affects millions of people worldwide, impacting physical health, mental well-being, and social relationships.[1] Physically, addiction can lead to a range of health issues such as cardiovascular problems, liver damage, respiratory issues, and an increased risk of infectious diseases.[2] Mentally, addiction often co-occurs with mental health disorders as well, such as depression, anxiety, and trauma-related disorders, worsening symptoms and complicating treatment.[3]

Understanding the nature of drug addiction helps in developing effective treatment options that address the multifaceted causes and consequences of the condition, often referred to by mental health professionals as substance use disorder. From the neurobiological changes in the brain to the behavioral patterns that cause ongoing addiction, exploring these aspects of substance use disorder provides insight into how comprehensive treatment strategies can support recovery and promote long-term sobriety.

Related: From an Addiction Specialist: What Is Addiction?

What is a Substance Use Disorder?

A substance use disorder (SUD) refers to a condition characterized by problematic substance use including alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription medications.[4] It’s a clinical term used to describe a range of behaviors and symptoms related to substance abuse, drug use, and addiction.

Key features of a substance use disorder include:[5]

  • Impaired control: Difficulty in controlling substance use, such as consuming more than intended or being unable to stop using despite wanting to.
  • Social impairment: Substance use causes issues in relationships, work, school, or other areas of social functioning.
  • Risky use: Continued use of substances despite understanding their contribution to physical or psychological problems.
  • Tolerance: Needing increased amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect or experiencing diminished effects with continued use of the same amount.
  • Withdrawal: If a physical dependence forms, withdrawal symptoms happen when substance use is reduced or stopped, which can vary depending on the substance.

Diagnosing SUDs involves assessing the presence and severity of specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).[6] A mental health professional will evaluate these symptoms to determine the severity of the disorder—mild, moderate, or severe—based on the number of criteria met.

There are currently several categories of SUDs in the DSM, including:

  • Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Stimulant Use Disorder
  • Cannabis Use Disorder
  • Hallucinogen Use Disorder
  • Opioid Use Disorder
  • Sedative, Hypnotic, or Anxiolytic Use Disorder

What Causes Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction is a complex condition often influenced by a combination of risk factors:[7]

Biological Factors

  • Genetics: Research suggests that genetics play a significant role in addiction susceptibility. Individuals with a family history of drug addiction are at a higher risk of developing the dependency.
  • Brain chemistry: Substances can alter the brain’s neurotransmitter systems, affecting mood, behavior, and decision-making. This can contribute to the development of addiction.

Psychological Factors

  • Personality traits: Certain traits, like impulsivity, sensation-seeking, or a tendency towards risk-taking behavior, can predispose individuals to drug addiction.
  • Stress and trauma: High-stress levels, exposure to trauma, sexual abuse, or adverse life events can increase vulnerability to substance use as a coping mechanism.
  • Dual diagnosis: When a mental health disorder coincides with a substance use disorder, The presence of both conditions can increase the likelihood of substance use as a form of self-medication.

Environmental Factors

  • Peer influence: Social factors, including peer pressure and social acceptance of substance use, can influence individual behaviors.
  • Family environment: Childhood experiences, parental substance use, or neglect can contribute to the risk of drug addiction later in life.
  • Socioeconomic status: Economic disadvantage or lack of access to resources can increase substance use patterns and addiction risk.

Developmental Factors

  • Starting Age: Early initiation of substance use during adolescence, when the brain is still developing, can increase the risk of addiction.
  • Access to substances: Availability and easy access to substances can facilitate experimentation, taking drugs at an early age, and the development of an addiction.

Are Substance Use Disorders Considered Mental Health Disorders?

Yes, substance use disorders are considered mental health disorders. They are classified as such in the DSM, which is the standard classification used by healthcare professionals to diagnose mental health conditions. Since it is classified as a mental illness, it is also treatable and possible to recover from.

Is Addiction Considered a Disease?

SUDs and addiction are widely considered to be a disease.[8] The concept of addiction as a disease emphasizes its chronic and relapsing nature. This perspective recognizes that addiction involves changes in the brain’s structure and function, particularly in areas related to motivation, reward, and decision-making.

These changes contribute to compulsive, drug-seeking behavior and difficulty in controlling substance use despite suffering negative consequences. Viewing addiction as a disease helps to promote understanding, reduce stigma, and emphasize the importance of evidence-based treatments and support for individuals affected by substance use disorders.

Understanding drug addiction also helps to shift the perception from a moral failing to a medical condition that affects brain function and behavior. Viewing addiction through the lens of a disease stresses the importance of comprehensive treatment and support systems that address both the physiological aspects of substance dependence and the behavioral patterns that sustain it.

How Drug Addiction Affects Your Brain

Drug addiction influences the brain’s structure, function, and chemical processes.[9] When substances are used, they typically target the reward system of the brain and other brain chemical systems. These substances mimic natural neurotransmitters or alter their normal production and release, leading to exaggerated feelings of pleasure or euphoria.

Over time, repeated drug use can lead to changes in the brain’s wiring, affecting decision-making, behavior control, and the ability to experience pleasure from natural brain chemicals. This rewiring of the brain reinforces compulsive, drug-seeking behaviors, making it difficult for individuals to control their use.

Additionally, some drugs can cause neurotoxic effects or damage to brain cells, further impairing cognitive function and emotional regulation.[10] If a dependence has developed and someone stops using the drug, experiencing withdrawal symptoms can also create profound changes in brain chemistry, contributing to intense cravings and a cycle of addiction that is challenging to break without intervention and support.

Related: Understanding the Science of Addiction

How Addiction Can Affect Your Family

Drug addiction can have profound and far-reaching effects on families as well. The impact extends beyond the individual struggling with addiction to encompass emotional, psychological, social, and financial consequences for their loved ones.

Family members often experience a range of emotions such as anger, frustration, guilt, and fear as they witness their loved one’s decline into addiction. Relationships can become strained or damaged due to unpredictable behavior, dishonesty, and broken promises associated with substance use. The dynamics within the family unit may shift, with roles and responsibilities changing as family members attempt to cope with and accommodate the behavior of their loved one struggling with addiction.

Children in such families may suffer from neglect, instability, or trauma, potentially affecting their emotional development and future well-being. Financial stability can also be jeopardized due to expenses related to addiction treatment, legal issues, or loss of income.

When Should You Seek Help?

Knowing when to seek help for substance use issues is the first step for effective intervention and recovery. If you find that you are experiencing a loss of control over your substance use, it may be time to seek professional assistance from health care providers.

Additionally, if substance use is affecting your health, whether physically with symptoms like withdrawal, or mentally with mood swings and cognitive impairments, this indicates a need for intervention. These health issues can worsen without proper treatment and support.

Substance use disorders often lead to conflicts with family members, friends, or colleagues, causing trust issues and social isolation. Addressing these issues early can prevent further damage to important relationships and help rebuild trust.

If loved ones or others express concern about your substance use and its impact on your life, this feedback should be considered seriously as an indication to seek treatment. Recognizing these signs and taking action early can significantly improve your chances of recovery and lead to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

The Range of Care for Addiction Treatment

The range of care for addiction treatment encompasses a variety of interventions and support options tailored to meet the diverse needs of individuals struggling with substance use disorders. Each stage of treatment plays an important role in addressing the physical, psychological, and social aspects of addiction.

Medical Detoxification (Detox)

Detoxification is often the first step in addiction treatment. It focuses on safely managing withdrawal symptoms when someone stops using substances abruptly. Medical supervision is recommended during this phase to monitor and support individuals through the physical and emotional challenges of withdrawal.

Detoxification can occur in a hospital setting, residential treatment facility, or specialized detox center where medical professionals can provide medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and ensure the safety and comfort of the individuals.

Inpatient or Residential Rehabilitation (Rehab)

Following detox, some individuals may benefit from inpatient or residential rehabilitation programs. These programs offer intensive, structured treatment in a live-in facility.

Inpatient rehab typically includes individual therapy, group counseling, educational sessions, and activities aimed at teaching coping skills and relapse prevention strategies.

Residential rehab provides a supportive environment where individuals can focus fully on recovery away from triggers and daily stressors.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment programs offer flexibility by allowing individuals to live at home while attending therapy sessions and treatment appointments during the day or evening.

Outpatient programs vary in intensity and may include individual counseling, group therapy, psycho-education, mental health services, and medication management. This option is suitable for individuals who have a stable living environment and a supportive network but still require structured treatment and ongoing support.

Continuing Care and Relapse Prevention

Continuing care and relapse prevention planning are the final steps of addiction treatment. After completing a formal treatment program, individuals benefit from ongoing support through aftercare services, which may include outpatient counseling, sober living homes, support groups, vocational support, and family therapy.

Relapse prevention programs involving families focus on identifying triggers, developing coping skills, and creating a plan to manage cravings and stressful situations to maintain long-term sobriety.

Each stage of addiction treatment plays an important role in supporting you on the journey to recovery. If you or a loved one needs help, then the choice is Clear—reach out to us today to get started.

Healing From Drug Addiction

While overcoming drug addiction may seem impossible, sobriety is achievable. Deciding to go to treatment is not easy by any means, however, it could be a decision that leads to a fulfilling life free from drugs and alcohol.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, contact Clear Behavioral Health today to learn more about our treatment programs. We offer a full continuum of care for treating substance abuse including medical detox and residential treatment as well as dual diagnosis outpatient programs for ongoing support.


  1. Abuse, N. I. on D. (2012, December 14). Global Health | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). on June 24, 2024
  2. Bethesda. (2020). Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders Research Report. In PubMed. National Institutes on Drug Abuse (US). on June 24, 2024
  3. SAMHSA. (2023). Mental health and substance use co-occurring disorders. on June 24, 2024
  4. Mayo Clinic . (2022, October 4). Drug addiction (substance use disorder) – symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. on June 24, 2024
  5. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, October 20). Substance Use Disorder (SUD): Symptoms & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. on June 24, 2024
  6. McNeely, J., & Adam, A. (2020, October 1). Table 3, DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for Diagnosing and Classifying Substance Use Disorders [abc]. on June 24, 2024
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July). Drug Misuse and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health. on June 24, 2024
  8. SAMHSA. (n.d.). “Why Addiction is a ‘Disease’, and Why It’s Important.” on June 24, 2024
  9. Weber, M. (2019, May 22). Understanding addiction. on June 24, 2024
  10. NIDA. (2020). Drugs and the Brain. National Institute on Drug Abuse. on June 24, 2024
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