Understanding the Psychology of Addiction

psychology of addiction

The United States is in the midst of an epidemic. It’s a silent epidemic, often hidden behind closed doors. Someone you know may be suffering from it. It’s an epidemic of addiction, both to substances and behaviors, and it’s growing worse.

While the usual culprits are to blame, including illegal drugs and alcohol, other addictions and addictive behaviors are also part of the epidemic. Over 52 million people over the age of 12 have used prescription painkillers “recreationally.” Nearly 88,000 people died from alcohol abuse-related disorders in 2013, and other addictive behaviors, such as compulsive overeating, eating disorders and gambling account for even more death and despair. In a nation of 321 million people, 22 million use illegal drugs.

breaking psychological addiction

Physical addiction certainly accounts for much of the reason people continue using and abusing drugs, but there is also a strong psychological component to addiction. Just getting clean and sober may not address the actual psychology of addiction. Breaking psychological addiction requires a commitment to understanding the root causes of one’s personal addictive behavior and getting free from the destructive cycle.

what is the psychology of addiction

The psychology of addiction is a complex pattern of behaviors that lead people to compulsive repetition of a certain behavior even though they know it’s harmful. Addiction involves both physical and psychological aspects.

Physical addiction is easy to understand. When someone abuses drugs or alcohol, especially over a long period of time, it causes changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters. These chemicals react with centers of the brain that create feelings of pleasure and well-being. Greater quantities of an addictive substance are needed over time to create the same pleasurable feelings. An abuser’s body adjusts to the rising levels of drugs or alcohol and adapts its biochemistry to compensate for the chemicals ingested. Over time, physical addiction results. Abrupt cessation of drug or alcohol use can cause unpleasant and even life-threatening reactions.

Most psychological addiction begins with feelings that are out of control. Strong emotions like rage, jealousy, fear and hopelessness make some people feel helpless. To quell these uncomfortable feelings, abusers turn to drugs, alcohol or compulsive behaviors such as gambling, overeating or pornography.

At first, turning to substances or behaviors to soothe unpleasant feelings is a choice. No one wakes up in the morning and decides they’re going to become a substance abuser or engage in a life-threatening compulsion. However, at some point, the behavior or drug of choice becomes a necessary ritual and takes over as the primary method of relieving strong feelings.

Repetition can become so ingrained that the original situation that triggered the addiction is no longer necessary to engage in a binge or relapse. Passing a brightly lit bar may trigger an alcoholic to crave a drink even if he’s been sober for years. Pictures of an appealing chocolate cake can send a compulsive overeater into a pleasant daydream about a binge, leading to relapse. Repeated behaviors dig deep grooves into the human psyche, reinforcing addictive patterns and the psychology of addiction.

When Is a Behavior an Addiction?

Some behaviors may be harmful, but they are neither compulsive nor addictive. Individuals who binge-drink on the weekends are engaging in harmful behavior, but they may not be truly addicted to alcohol and can stop binge drinking when their situation changes. A college senior who binge drinks on the weekends may graduate and embark on a path to a career and family, giving up binge drinking for the responsibilities of adulthood. An addict, on the other hand, would have extreme difficulty giving up their drinking habit even if it meant losing a job or loved ones.

Many compulsive behaviors live in the gray area between self-medication, compulsion and addiction. Overeating, for example, can take on many shades of gray. Self-medicating with chocolate is so commonplace that television commercials urge viewers to indulge in the latest confection as a reward for a job well done or a hard day completed. Such an indulgence can turn into compulsion when the overeater knows that eating an extra chocolate bar packs on unwanted calories.

Compulsion may also be said to occur when an overeater eats even when they know it’s harmful to their health, such as a diabetic feeling a strong urge to eat sweets. Such a compulsion turns into an addiction when the overeater can’t stop and the indulgence turns into an out-of-control binge. Compulsive overeaters, like drug addicts and alcoholics, have been known to steal money or food to feed their habit.


Although this example uses compulsive overeating, other addictive behaviors may fall into a similar pattern. Food isn’t addictive per se, but the behavior around food may be. Determining when the behavior of self-medication turns from compulsion into addiction takes time and work with a skilled therapist or addiction counselor such as those found at 12 Keys Rehab.

The Addictive Personality

when does behavior become addiction

Scientists will always debate whether psychological addiction is nature or nurture, circumstances or genetics. What they do know is that physical addiction has a strong genetic component. In addition, compulsive behavior is related to obsessive-compulsive disorders and certain anxiety disorders, which also have a strong genetic component.

Mental health experts agree that even though substance abusers and destructive compulsive behaviors have very different etiologies, both types of abuse share similar psychological traits. These traits are often present throughout a substance abuser’s lifetime from earliest childhood on.

Characteristics of an addictive personality include:

  • A tendency toward impulsive actions and behaviors.
  • Difficulty delaying gratification – they want what they want now and can’t wait to get it.
  • Non-conformist nature and discontent with society’s typical goals.
  • Strong sense of alienation from society and family.
  • Sense of being under constant high stress, even when others in similar situations do not seem to feel the same level of stress. Addictive personalities tend to over-react to stress.

Other factors that feed into the psychology of addiction include physical or sexual abuse as a child, poor self-esteem and a chaotic family or home life. A common thread running through these addiction factors is helplessness – abused children, people with poor self-esteem and children living in chaotic homes often feel helpless. Turning to drugs, alcohol or compulsive behaviors is a psychological method of placing some form of control over a situation. In this case, even negative control such as the action of indulging in an addictive or compulsive behavior, at least creates boundaries around a situation and puts that situation in the user’s control.

Genetic, Biological or Psychological Addiction?

The common truism that no two people are exactly the same bears repeating when discussing the psychology of addiction. Two family members growing up in the same crazy household, abused by the same parents and inheriting the same genetic disposition, may end up in entirely different situations. One may become a gambling addict, and the other may have no signs of addiction.

Addiction and recovery are influenced by a myriad of factors. No situation is hopeless, and no one’s life is predetermined by genetics, family or personality traits. People have a choice in how they react to a situation and can always choose to take a different course of action than the one they’re on now. Just because someone is born with an addictive personality doesn’t mean they’ll become an addict.

Psychology of Breaking Addiction

Examining the psychology of addiction provides clues for the psychology of breaking addiction. When someone knows why they’re engaging in a destructive pattern of behavior, they can take steps to change their actions.

The general pattern found in the psychology of addiction is:

psychology of addiction Trigger. An external action or an internal thought triggers strong feelings.
breaking psychological addiction Avoidance. To avoid these feelings, the addict needs their substance or behavior of choice.
what is the psychology of addiction Substitution. Rather than deal with the unpleasant feelings, the addict engages in the compulsion or addiction to substitute positive feelings for the negative ones.
psychology of addiction Repetition. Behaviors repeating along this pattern are addictive.


It’s hard to understand breaking psychological addiction unless you comprehend that the act of drinking, drugging or indulging in a compulsive behavior begins days, hours or even minutes before the actual binge. Psychological addiction is triggered by circumstances. These circumstances then lead to avoidance and substitution. If you can figure out when you are triggered, you can break the psychology of addiction by substituting positive behaviors or confronting the unpleasant situation, rather than avoiding it.

Confronting Instead of Avoiding Unpleasant Feelings

One of the hardest aspects of breaking psychological addiction is confronting unpleasant emotions, situations and people instead of avoiding them. Confronting doesn’t necessarily mean facing something head on, either. It may mean taking positive, productive and proactive steps to manage a situation rather than swallowing the uncomfortable emotions it evokes and ending up in a binge.

Let’s take as an example a fictional character named Bob, who is a functional alcoholic. By day, he’s a productive employee, but as soon as he gets off work, he heads to the nearest bar and drinks until he’s drunk. He sobers up enough to return to work the next day, hiding his alcoholism from his coworkers. Bob can skip several days of drinking with nothing more to show for it than a bad headache and some queasiness, so he doesn’t feel he’s physically addicted. He is, however, psychologically addicted, because every day, he has to head over to that bar instead of just taking the train home from his office job.

What Bob doesn’t realize is that the trigger for his eventual compulsion to drink actually happens every morning when he arrives at work. His boss is 20 years younger than he is, and Bob resents being managed by someone he considers an inexperienced, arrogant man.

In truth, Bob’s boss is a very talented person, but Bob feels resentment every morning when he sits down with his group at work for their daily morning meeting. Bob leaves the meeting feeling helpless to change his work situation. He can’t transfer to another department, he can’t get rid of his boss and he’s not in a position to find a new job. Those feelings of rage (at his boss), resentment (at his boss) and helplessness (at his situation) trigger strong emotions. To avoid them, Bob drinks. The alcohol makes him temporarily forget his feelings.

If Bob chooses to confront his feelings, he can take several action steps. Acknowledging his resentment of his boss, even if just to himself and a trusted friend, is a good first step. For those who understand the 12-step process of recovery, this is part of what’s called a Step Four Inventory. It’s often part of recovery programs such as those at 12 Keys Rehab.

Bob can then choose to react differently to his boss. Instead of feeling resentful that a younger man is in charge of the department, Bob can seek out other opportunities for advancement and promotion. He can talk to his boss about what he might need to do to get such a promotion. Bob can polish his resume, actively seek a new job or consider returning to school to acquire new skills for an entire career change.

Addicts often feel like they’re running on a treadmill because they’re stuck in the repetitive psychological pattern of trigger, avoidance, substitution and repetition. If they stay locked into the cycle, they’re still spinning in place.  It’s only by stepping out of the sequence that they can see the pattern and discover areas where the pattern can be changed.

Working with a psychologist or psychotherapist, an addiction counselor or a recovery group can be invaluable in such circumstances. Often, group feedback helps people understand places where they are psychologically stuck and places where breaking psychological addiction may be possible. Finding a recovery center or group is the first step to breaking free from the compulsion of addictive behavior and breaking psychological addiction.

help and hope for breaking psychological addiction

Recovery is a physical, mental and spiritual process. Even if you aren’t physically addicted to a substance, mental and spiritual recovery must be addressed to adequately break free from a psychological addiction. At 12 Keys, our therapists can help you with understanding the psychology of breaking addiction and addressing the triggers that cause you to reach for your substance of choice.

Since each person and each situation is unique, we offer an individualized approach to recovery. Our programs incorporate scientific processes along with mind-body techniques and trusted 12-step resources to help you break free from addiction. This multi-track, multi-disciplinary approach treats the whole person, not just the disease. Your recovery will be supervised by a large staff trained in the 12 Keys approach, with a low ratio of counselors to clients to ensure personalized service.

There is hope and healing from addiction. Recovery is possible. For more information, contact us online or call us 24/7.

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