While addiction is complex in nature, scientists have developed a good understanding of how it works. We know that addiction isn’t a personal failure nor choice but rather a disease that infects the brain and body.
When one hears of addiction, their immediate reaction is substance abuse. Research has found there are actually two types of addiction: ¹
- Behavioral Addiction – An addiction that involves persistent and repeated behaviors, such as gambling.
- Chemical Addiction – An addiction that involves substance abuse (i.e. drugs or alcohol).
Throughout this article, we’re going to review everything you need to know about the types of addiction. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
How Does Addiction Work?
There are a few different elements that influence how addiction works within the brain and body. These influences don’t affect everyone similarly and it’s likely you may be struggling with one more than the other. For this reason, it’s vital to find a treatment facility that caters to your needs.
The influences of addiction are as follows:
Cravings and Tolerance
One of the first signs of addiction most people come across is cravings. This is when you experience a strong desire to experience exultation from substances or behaviors. Much of the time, these cravings appear at specific cues. For example, you may watch a movie where others are getting high and have an immediate desire to want to participate yourself. ²
The other difficulty many experience is building a tolerance to their addiction. When you engage in a behavior or substance long enough, your brain becomes adjusted to its presence.
More particularly, the neurotransmitter dopamine – a chemical we naturally create that reinforces pleasure – is developed through addiction. At first, the brain is overwhelmed with dopamine as it creates its own and is receiving more from the substance or behavior. However, over time, the brain realizes there’s enough dopamine as is and doesn’t produce nearly as much. ³
With that lack of dopamine, the brain has a difficult time functioning. In turn, it leads you to crave more of a substance in order to function normally. As you can see, building a tolerance to a substance and behavior goes hand-in-hand with cravings.
The Reward System
Cravings and tolerance directly affect the brain’s reward system. This is the area of the brain that’s responsible for creating and distributing dopamine.
Dopamine is present when we participate in a number of activities – from hanging out with friends to accomplishing difficult tasks. However, it can also be created synthetically through addictions – from various drugs to certain stimulating behaviors (i.e. gambling, pornography, etc.). ⁴
When we participate in addiction, we are telling our reward system that this substance or behavior creates that “good feeling” dopamine is known for. In turn, our reward system directs us to continuously seek out this substance or behavior.
Losing Interest in Activities and Control
As a direct result of your brain craving further dopamine, you’re likely to lose interest in activities you once enjoyed. Chances are these previous hobbies didn’t produce nearly as much dopamine for your reward system and, in turn, your brain seeks out where it can obtain the most pleasure. ⁵
The difficulty here is you can still be at a loss of interest even when you’re not engaging in addictive behaviors or substances. This is one of the toughest challenges those in recovery face and often a reason for relapse.
If you believe you’re struggling with an addiction, it can help to look back on certain activities you no longer participate in. It’s likely you still have some interest in these activities, but don’t have as much of a desire to go out and obtain them.
With such a strong desire to participate in addiction, it’s very likely you’ll lose control over important aspects of your life. For example, many struggling with addiction find themselves having problems with their work, school, health, and relationships.
If you are currently facing this loss of control and trying to get your life back – this is the perfect opportunity to seek professional help.
There’s a lot of debate surrounding behavioral addiction as some scientists believe it doesn’t actually involve addiction processes found in substance abuse. However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) 5 acknowledges two types of behavior addiction: gambling addiction and an internet gaming disorder
The majority of professionals agree that behavior patterns can lead to an addiction. However, where they remain in disagreement is 1.) at what point these behaviors become addictions and 2.) which exact behaviors can be addictive. ⁶
Due to the lack of scientific evidence, there is no criteria for labeling a behavioral addiction. However, there are a few signs to consider if you believe you or a loved on is currently experience this problem:
- Continuing the behavior even when it causes trouble in one’s life
- Engages in behavior even when it harms responsibilities and relationships
- Feeling withdrawal symptoms (i.e. irritability, anxiety, depression) when quitting the behavior
- Having problems avoiding the behavior
- Lying about or hiding the behavior to others
- Spending a lot of time engaging in behavior
- Uses the behavior to avoid or manage negative emotions
The most common behavioral addiction include:
- Exercise addiction
- Food addiction
- Sex (porn) addiction
- Shopping addiction
- Social media addiction
- TV addiction
Behavioral Addiction Treatment
When it comes to behavioral addiction treatment, most professionals will recommend therapy prior to medication. The most common is known as cognitive behavioral therapies (CBTs). These concentrate on the thoughts and emotions behind your distress and learning how to restructure them to better symptoms.
Other treatments that have been found to be beneficial are self-help groups. It’s likely many others out there are also struggling with the same addiction. A peer support group allows you to relate to the distress you may be feeling and work together on developing coping mechanisms.
It’s worth mentioning that some studies suggest SSRI antidepressants may also help in breaking addictive behaviors. However, being as these can be addictive in and of themselves, they should be taken with caution.
When people think of addiction, they’re often referring to chemical addiction. This is when one misuses, is dependent on, and addicted to a substance (illicit drug or alcohol). It’s recommended to use the term “substance abuse disorder” rather than chemical addiction as there’s more room for professionals to differentiate between mild, moderate, and intense cases. ⁷
A substance abuse disorder often takes time to develop as the brain and body must become accustomed to a drug. Not to mention, as with behavioral addiction, there is some debate into when an addiction truly begins and continues to persist.
Regardless, it’s important to understand that a drug or alcohol addiction isn’t necessarily a choice. Instead, it’s a disease that persists through the brain and body and becomes difficult to control. Such thinking makes it possible to end the stigma behind substance abuse disorder and properly understand why so many in the world are negatively affected by this mental health condition.
If you believe you or a loved one is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, there are some signs and symptoms to consider: ⁸
- Building a tolerance (the need to use more of a substance to feel the initial effects)
- Cravings so intense, it’s difficult to think about other things
- Difficulty with work, school, health, and relationships due to substance use
- Discomfort when you can’t get ahold of a substance
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you don’t take a substance
- Great difficulty in quitting a substance
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Risky use of a substance (i.e. driving, working while under the influence)
There are a number of substances people can find themselves addicted to – from opioids (heroin and prescription pain medication) to amphetamines to cocaine to alcohol and nicotine. Each affects the brain and body differently and, with that, has a different treatment process.
Chemical Addiction Treatment
Quitting a substance will most likely be more difficult in comparison to recovering from a behavioral addiction. This is simply due to the nature of drugs and alcohol and how they affect the body.
Upon treatment, you’ll need to undergo a medically supervised detox in which the body naturally drains itself of the substance’s chemical influence. This is often one of the worst parts of the recovery process and can come with serious withdrawal symptoms. ⁹
From there, you’ll be involved in a treatment process that requires therapy and medication. This process can either take place in a facility or on your own terms – depending on the nature of your disorder. The more intense your addiction, the more likely an inpatient treatment plan will be suggested.
The most common therapy for substance abuse disorder are known as psychotherapies. These involve dealing with the distressing emotions (i.e. cravings) that come with quitting and developing technique to manage them. The goal is that you’ll develop habits which will prevent you from relapsing once out of treatment.
Medications are sometimes used in order to help with the recovery process. The medication you may be offered depends on the substance you were addicted to and the nature of your addiction. The goal of the medication is to help reduce cravings and ease other withdrawal symptoms.
Normally, it’s best if you undergo a combination of both therapy and medication. However, it’s even more beneficial if you enroll in a twelve-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). These provide both group support and a 12-step model that can help in your recovery process.
With an understanding of the different types of addiction, we hope you can identify if you or a loved one is struggling with either. Generally speaking, it’s best to get consult a mental health professional as they’ll be able to provide you with a more detailed analysis on your particular situation.
Both behavioral and chemical addictions are treatable, but require a willingness on the end of the person struggling. If there is no will, relapse is extremely likely to happen. With that said, treatment can’t be forced. However, it can be influenced with the proper techniques.
Still have questions about the types of addiction?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further advice to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ International Journal of Preventive Medicine (Medknow Publications): Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views
² Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (HHS Public Access): The clinical significance of drug craving
³ BioEssays: news and reviews in molecular, cellular and developmental biology (HHS Public Access): Addiction: Decreased reward sensitivity and increased expectation sensitivity conspire to overwhelm the brain’s control circuit
⁴ Harvard review of psychiatry (HHS Public Access): Neurobiologic Process in Drug Reward and Addiction
⁵ National Institute of Health (NIH) – News in Health: Biology of Addiction: Drugs and Alcohol Can Hijack Your Brain
⁶ The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse (HHS Public Access): Introduction to Behavioral Addictions
⁷ MedlinePlus: Substance abuse disorder
⁸ National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): How To Recognize a Substance Abuse Disorder
⁹ National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction