Understanding Addiction and Recovery

Addiction affects millions of people around the world, including both those who have the addiction and the people around them.

Whether it is an addiction to a certain substance or activity, it can be a difficult condition to deal with. A large part of the challenge comes from a lack of understanding about what addiction is and how it can be treated.

Thankfully, the science of addiction is well understood, and there are many available methods for treating it.

Understanding what addiction is, how it influences an individual’s thinking, and how it can be treated is the first step in helping yourself or someone you know get on the path to recovery.

What is an addiction?

An addiction is when an individual does not have control over their use of a certain substance or their participation in a certain activity.

They do it to the point where it becomes harmful to their physical or mental health, and in spite of this are unable to stop.

Addiction can occur with almost anything, but some of the common include drugs, alcohol, and gambling.

Why do people become addicted?

When an individual takes a substance, such as alcohol or drugs, or engages in an activity, such as sex or gambling, dopamine is released in the brain. This is the body’s pleasure hormone, and the brain experiences pleasure when it is released.

When this occurs, the brain takes note. This is because it functions on the ‘pleasure principle’.

The brain remembers anything that generates feelings of pleasure, and looks to replicate it by doing the same action again.

As a result of this, the brain begins to develop an association between the substance or activity and its beneficial effect, and so looks to use it more and more frequently.

How the body and mind changes

When an individual begins using a substance or doing an activity as an integral part of their everyday life, their physical and mental health begins to change.

Addiction is better described as dependency. When an individual gets hooked on a substance or activity, their inability to stop is due to a developed physical or psychological dependency on it.

With heavy substances such as alcohol, abusing them can cause the body’s chemistry to change. This change can be so substantial that the body becomes dependent on the frequent doses of the substance, and so struggles to function without it.

When the individual goes without the substance, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These are similar to those of a cold or flu, and make it difficult for them to resist using again.

With activities and lighter substances, psychological dependency can develop. This is where the individual believes they cannot go on with their daily lives without it.

To stop would mean having to face the stress and anxiety of their day-to-day schedule, and these negative emotions act as an incentive to keep using or doing the activity.

What’s the damage?

When an individual develops an addiction, it can cause great harm to their mental and physical health. Furthermore, it can also hurt and upset those around them.

The effects of an addiction might include:

  • A weakened immune system, leaving the body susceptible to disease.
  • Long-term damage to certain organs, such as the liver with alcohol abuse.
  • Potential overdose.
  • Increasing isolation and breakdown of relationships.
  • Financial trouble, especially in the case of addictive gambling.
  • Depleting mental health and suicidal thoughts.

While these effects have a direct impact on the individual themselves, they can all cause upset for their family or friends.

Financial trouble, relationship problems, and health issues especially can take their toll on those closest to the individual.

Before recovery

To fully understand addiction, it is important to know why the individual does not seek help for themselves. In spite of the harm they are doing to themselves and others, they are likely unwilling to seek out treatment, but why?

The resistance to treatment is often due to an individual either denying that they have an addiction, or believing that they can stop whenever they choose

Often, those who are addicted to a certain substance or activity do not believe anything is wrong. It is simply something that they enjoy, and they could easily stop if they wanted to.

This also means that, when approached by someone who is concerned about their behaviour, an individual may act aggressively or angrily. They will not see why they are being approached, and so reject the concerns being voiced to them.

As a result, this means that the people around the individual are often inclined to approach them about their addiction and encourage them to seek help.

When doing this, it is essential to remain supportive, honest, and open when voicing your concerns, as this will give you the best chance of getting through to them.

What does the recovery journey involve?

The road to recovery from addiction is long but by no means impossible.

When an individual seeks help for their addiction, they will usually undergo an appointment where a medical professional gets to grips with the details of their situation.

This is to understand what the individual is facing and align them with the treatment method that will be most effective for them. This can depend on what they are addicted to, how severe their addiction is, and what toll the addiction has had on their physical health.

Regardless of the route chosen, recovery’s job is to help the individual understand their addiction, rebuild their lives, and maintain what progress they have made.


The first stage of treatment will always involve the individual beginning to understand their addiction better.

This can be via one-to-one sessions, and involves allowing the individual to talk through the emotions and thought processes associated with their addiction in order to find ways to rework them.

It can also take the form of group therapy, which research shows can benefit individuals by giving them a sense of community and compassion alongside others in a similar situation [1].

Learning what is going on in their heads, as well as what effects their addiction is having on their physical and mental health, provides the individual with a better understanding of what is going on so that they can appreciate the value of treatment going forward.

In cases of physical dependency, an individual may be provided medicinal substitutes so that they can begin understanding their addiction without the burden of withdrawal symptoms acting as a distraction.


Once the individual learns more about their addiction, treatment then works to help them rebuild their lives in a healthier, substance-free way.

One way this can be done is through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This involves an individual learning how certain thoughts and feelings have a negative impact on their behaviour, and working to change how they respond in the future.

An individual is encouraged to break the brain’s association between the substance or activity with pleasure, and developing healthier ways of coping with everyday life.

The rebuilding stage might also take the form of detoxification, where the body is weened from the substance completely.


The final and most important stage of recovery is maintaining the progress an individual has made.

The physical independence that the body has developed, as well as the thought processes and routines the individual has learned, must be upkept. If they are broken, the individual may become vulnerable to using again, and fall into the addictive cycle once more.

Many people relapse following a recovery, so it is important to try and continue working towards a healthy lifestyle when sobriety is achieved.

If an individual does relapse, however, it does not mean they have failed. It is commonly considered part of the process for a recovered individual to begin using again [2], but the medical professionals familiar with their case will be able to assist in getting things back on track.

How to get help

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, it is important to seek treatment and begin recovery as soon as possible.

Talking to your GP or a specialised organisation is the best way to seek advice on the specifics of your situation and learn what path is best going forward.

[1] ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5047716/

[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery