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Understanding Addiction

Understanding addiction - closeup of a racoon

In 2020, drug and alcohol addiction in the U.S. was starting to wane when COVID-19 came on the scene with its lockdowns, shelter-at-home orders, etc. which set off a domino effect of mental health consequences. One of those effects was a 23% increase in alcohol consumption and a 16% increase in drug consumption. And those statistics have continued to rise. Almost 165 million Americans are addicted to drugs (including alcohol and tobacco). If you are in that number, you are not alone.

One of the first steps to overcoming addiction is understanding it. An unexamined problem is like a monster making noises in the attic: scary until you go up there and see that it’s a big racoon. It’s definitely a problem, but it’s now a manageable problem that you can get help to remove. So, let’s peek into the attic of your brain and understand what addiction is, what causes it, what are some signs that you may have it, and what you can do to address it.

Understanding What Addiction Is

If you’re a Christian, you’ve heard some people say that addiction is a disease and others say that it is a sin. Which is it? It’s both. It is a disease in the sense there is a physiological component. The structures of your brain have been changed so that the way it registers pleasure is altered and its normal drives have been replaced by cravings for your drug of choice. The drug has hijacked the brain’s reward system, making you physically dependent on the chemical reward that the drug triggers in the brain. This alteration of the brain has caused you to lose the power of choice and control so that you are now controlled by the craving and compulsion of the brain to get the reward the drug gives it when you use.

But at the same time, there is a spiritual component. At the root of addiction are sinful choices. “Sin” is falling short of God’s will and purpose for our lives. God’s will is for us to look to Him to meet all of our needs. But one day, you sought relief, escape, or comfort, not in God but in drugs and/or alcohol. Now, as with all sin, you are trapped and there are feelings of shame, guilt, despair, and helplessness. The good news is that, as with all sin, through repentance and faith that acts by seeking addiction treatment, there is forgiveness, hope, and power to heal and change.

The word “addiction” comes from a Latin word that means “enslavement.” Addiction is “voluntary enslavement.” You didn’t mean to become enslaved. You only wanted relief from pain, an escape from stress, a moment of enjoyment, or a way of fitting in and being accepted. Some people can handle it, and you thought you could too. But because of heredity, personality, past trauma, or other factors, you can’t and you become enslaved to a craving that can be overwhelming when delayed or denied.

Understanding What Causes Addiction

understanding addiction - looking down on a pink brain

Understand that there are many factors that can cause a person to be susceptible to addiction. One is heredity. There is strong evidence that addictions run in families. Another factor is trauma. People who experience abuse or traumatic events often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain and then become addicted. Research shows that 60-80% of PTSD sufferers also abuse substances. There are other factors such as peer pressure, easy availability, and the pressures of life can cause people to turn to drugs or alcohol and develop a dependency.

The most common factor that causes addiction is brain chemistry. Drugs give the user a shortcut to the brain’s pleasure center. The brain registers pleasure by releasing dopamine into the nucleus accumbens, “the brain’s pleasure center.” All drugs from alcohol to nicotine to heroin trigger this surge of dopamine. People whose brains release dopamine very quickly and with great reliability and intensity are highly likely to become addicted to the drug that triggers that chemical reward. This is because when the pleasure center of the brain gets the rush of dope/dopamine, the hippocampus records the rapid rush of satisfaction as a memory, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to the stimuli (in this case, drugs, alcohol, or nicotine…but it could also be pornography, gambling, impulse shopping, etc.) that creates the flood of dopamine. In other words, the brain processes that cause addiction are linked to learning, memory, and conditioned response, which all take place in various structures of the brain. Basically, the addictive substance or behavior stimulates the circuit in the brain and then overloads it so that the brain becomes “hooked” on the stimulation.

When you begin understanding the forces behind addiction, you realize why you are helpless to control it or stop it with prayer, resolutions, or will power. It is also why you are willing to disregard any negative consequences in order to get the stimulation your brain is craving. The only way to break the hold of the addiction is to reprogram the brain, which can be done with substance abuse counseling and treatment.

Understanding The Signs of Addiction

understanding addiction - a dead end sign at night

How do you know whether you have a habit or an addiction? A good rule of thumb is: if you can quit, it’s a habit; but if you are helpless to quit, it’s an addiction. Admitting that you have an addiction isn’t easy because of the shame and stigma of addiction. But admitting it is the first step to freedom. Here are some signs of addiction. If they are troublingly familiar, you should see your doctor and a substance abuse counselor who understands addiction for further evaluation and guidance.


The brain receptors get overwhelmed by the amount of dopamine that the drug floods the brain with (2-10 times more than normal), so the brain adapts by producing less dopamine. This is called “tolerance.” It causes the addict to increase their use the substance to chase the same high. If you are taking drugs, drinking, or smoking more than before, it’s a strong sign that you have an addiction.


As I already explained, your hippocampus remembers the rush of dopamine, and your amygdala knows how to get it again. This creates what psychologists call a “conditioned response,” or a craving, a compulsion. If you remember Psychology 101, they rang a bell before feeding Pavlov’s dog, and before long, the dog salivated every time they rang a bell. That’s a “conditioned response.” With addiction, your brain does the same thing. When you see a liquor bottle, or a billboard with a marijuana leaf, or when you get stressed, that’s the bell; and your brain responds by compelling you to use.

Negative Consequences

Addiction has consequences. You may gain weight or lose weight. You may have health issues. You may lose money. You may lose relationships. But the craving for the comfort you get from your substance is stronger than your aversion to any of those negative consequences. People will throw away successful careers, their health, their marriage and family for their addiction. If you are experiencing negative consequences, but press on with your substance usage anyway, that is a huge indication that you have an addiction.


Maybe you realize that you have a problem, and you’ve tried to quit but you failed, perhaps many times. You feel ashamed and disappointed with yourself that you can’t get back to the life you once had before the substance abuse, but you are stuck. You have lost the power of choice. That’s another mark of an addiction. You can’t do it alone.

Then, of course, there are other signs such as trouble sleeping, weight loss or gain, lethargy or hyperactivity, bad hygiene, changes in eyes and skin, tremors, seizures, mood swings, loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, being withdrawn or secretive, depression, suicidal thoughts, drunk or high most of the time, talking/taking/seeking your substance, financial problems, poor work performance.

What You Can Do

The good news is that there is hope and there is help. Breaking an addiction isn’t easy, but it is possible. The first step is to admit that you have a problem. The second step is to read more about substance abuse, then reach out to us at Christian Counseling Associates for help. We have counselors who are trained and specialize in chemical dependency who can walk you through the journey to recovery.

Derrick Sledge is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor at Christian Counseling Associates in the Plano office. He holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling and also a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is working on his doctorate in education ministry with emphasis in marriage and family.


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