Why The Psychology Of Addictive Behaviors Matters

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Addiction is a complicated phenomenon that can take several forms. One of the most common forms of addiction is substance use disorders. However, people can also become dependent on gambling, sex, video games, and shopping. By looking at addiction through the lens of psychology, stigmas and misinformation may be reduced. Whether you or a loved one are experiencing addiction or want to learn more about this topic in general, there are a few topics to keep in mind. 

Working with a therapist can help you with your addiction

What is addiction?

Although addiction can have many different faces, they all have the same underlying mechanism in the brain.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, "addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry."  In the brain of someone living with an addiction, neurotransmitters become dysfunctional, particularly ones involving the body's reward system.

The reward pathway involves multiple parts of the brain. The most critical circuit involved is the mesolimbic dopamine system, which detects any pleasurable stimulus, such as food or sex. 

Because various activities may provide a sense of reward or relief, a person's brain can be trained over time to pursue emotional release. For example, some people smoke because it provides relaxation and a sense of well-being. For some individuals, repeated exposure may evolve into a pathological and compulsive need to experience brain reward, often called an addiction. 

What are the signs of an addiction? 

When someone forms an addiction, they may have the following five characteristics:  

  • The belief they are unable to abstain from the activity
  • Impaired behavior control
  • Psychological and sometimes physical cravings 
  • A lack of recognition of how the addiction may be affecting them or others 
  • A dysfunctional emotional response

Despite the consequences of certain behaviors, such as health and financial impairments, people may continue to seek out their addiction and engage in unhealthy habits. However, addiction does not happen overnight. For example, someone who takes prescription pain medication may not develop a dependency after the first use but can over several weeks of using the medication. 

Addiction is a chronic challenge, often leading to withdrawal and relapses when someone attempts to quit. Approximately 85% of people relapse after receiving drug rehabilitation. By understanding the psychology of addictive behavior, individuals and society can attempt to increase treatment success rates and decrease relapse statistics.

What can cause addiction? 

Addiction can have multiple biological and environmental causes, and certain people may be at more risk than others. Below are a few of these potential causes. 


Biologically, genetics often play a role in addiction, and the condition is heritable. Studies show that an individual's risk tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative. For example, children who grow up with parents dependent on alcohol may be more likely to have an alcohol dependency themselves. 


While genetic predisposition plays a critical role in the development of addictive behaviors, it can also be crucial to look at what causes people to pick up a habit in the first place. The environment or one's social system can play a role in these cases. For example, a person who grows up without social support experiences homelessness, and has financial insecurity may be more likely to drink than someone with a healthy support system and financial stability, even if both people are genetically predisposed to addiction. 

Family upbringing 

Family upbringing can impact one's probability of trying out a specific action. For instance, if someone grows up in a household where smoking is commonplace, the odds of trying a cigarette are higher than in a non-smoking one. In addition, someone from the family may encourage unhealthy habits in some situations. For example, a family where drinking is a problem may encourage a teen to try a drink at a family get-together. 

Substance availability

One's reach to substances can increase the risk of an addiction. Aside from living circumstances, availability can be determined by culture, policies, religion, economic status, and narco-trafficking. 

Cocaine can be an example of how laws banning dangerous substances may sometimes decrease use. In the past, cocaine was not outlawed and was famously used in products like Coca-Cola. Psychologist Sigmund Freud praised the substance in his practice, and some believe he may have had a dependency on it. 

Following the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, and the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act of 1922, cocaine became banned for non-medical purposes and "severely restricted" in a legal capacity. Cocaine is still used worldwide and is a source of addiction for millions of people. However, its use has fallen over time. From 2006 to 2010, cocaine consumption in the United States decreased by 50%, continuing to decline. 

How can society combat addiction?  

One of the most famous youth programs in the United States is the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE), which intends to educate adolescents about the risks of substances and discourage their use. However, it has been criticized over the years for its methods and effectiveness.  

Even if the goals of such programs have not been met, education about addiction can be essential in treating it. Studies have made a correlation between the use of substances in adolescence and problem use later in life. Therefore, it can be critical that addiction is addressed at a young age. Regardless, adults can also find symptom relief and treatment, and addiction is treatable at any age. 

Society can implement three steps to optimize the outcomes regarding addictive behaviors in young people and adults, including the following: 

  • Family prevention
  • Community and school activities
  • Increased involvement from healthcare providers

Family prevention 

The role of the family in the development of addiction can be significant. Therefore, a healthy family system and bonding with children can reduce the risk of substance use. Additionally, problem-solving techniques and coping skills can be taught to children at risk of using substances. In addition, when people struggle with addiction, having a non-faltering support system may aid in reducing behavioral challenges. Empathy, love, and guidance can be crucial, as addiction has been scientifically proven to not be a choice.

Community and school activities 

While specific school programs may be criticized, others may be helpful and facilitate peer bonding to improve social skills and academic performance. Society can also support adults with addiction through more support groups and harm prevention programs. SAMSHA recommends harm prevention programs due to their high level of effectiveness. 

Relapse prevention 

Another part of reducing addiction rates is educating society on relapse prevention. Relapse can be broken down into three parts:

  • Emotional: An individual may worry about relapsing and demonstrate poor self-care.
  • Mental: People may start craving substances or other behaviors and reminiscing about people or events involving them.
  • Physical: The person starts using again or returning to old habits.

Relapse rates are high, but education and other support can help aid one's recovery. In addition, harm reduction can show individuals they can control when they stop using. Giving power back to people with addictions and reducing stigma and unkindness can empower people to make healthier physical and psychological choices. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often considered the "gold standard" of therapy for mental illnesses, including substance use disorders. CBT teaches clients to identify what led to their addiction, recognize maladaptive thoughts and behaviors, and replace these with healthier patterns. 

Because CBT focuses on identifying cognitive and environmental causes of substance use and addictive behaviors, it may prevent relapse by teaching alternative strategies. CBT has been found to work well for substance use disorders and other addictions, such as internet addiction, gambling disorder, and others. CBT can also treat depression and anxiety, which commonly co-occur with addictive disorders.

Working with a therapist can help you with your addiction

Alternative support options 

In some cases, finding support traditionally through an in-person therapist can be difficult for people with addictions. Stigma, financial instability, and unreachability may drive some not to seek support. In these cases, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp may be more convenient, flexible, and cost-effective than face-to-face options. 

With an online platform, clients can get matched with a therapist, often within 48 hours of signing up. Some platforms offer extra resources like weekly messaging, worksheets, journaling prompts, and online support groups. 

Studies also back up the effectiveness of online therapy, especially in the case of substance use disorders. One study reported that online intervention for individuals with these conditions was more effective than face-to-face options, convenient, and significantly more cost-effective. 


Addiction is a complex global challenge with many underlying causes. While genetic factors may be present, it can be helpful to look at the sociocultural factors that lead a person to become involved with potentially addictive activities or substances. Education may be paramount to tackling this challenge. Through further research and awareness regarding the psychology of addictive behaviors, individuals and professionals can improve preventative measures and help those at risk. 

Addiction is not a choice, and furthering the stigma and shaming of people living with addictions may worsen their symptoms. Encouraging community support, harm reduction, and reaching out for help may be the first step in reducing an addiction epidemic in the US and worldwide. If you're living with an addiction, consider contacting a provider online or in your area for further compassionate support and guidance.

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