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Psychological addiction: definition, symptoms, and treatment

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female sitting in the forest

Psychological addiction is defined as the emotional or mental dependence on a specific addictive agent. Also known as emotional or mental addiction, this type of addiction refers to a different aspect of substance use disorder – the one that affects a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

The main causes of psychological addiction are trauma and underlying mental health problems. At the same time, symptoms range from strong cravings to obsession with the drug and social isolation.

The biggest misconception about psychological addiction is that it’s the synonym for physical addiction. While these two can overlap and have some similarities, they’re not the same thing. Psychological addiction manifests itself through changed thinking and behavior patterns. For that reason, treatment of addiction should particularly focus on the psychological aspect in order to truly help a person on the road to recovery.

What can psychological addiction be against?

Psychological addiction can be against any substance. Substances that can cause psychological addiction include alcohol, opioids, inhalants, cannabis, stimulants like cocaine, and hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD.

For that reason, we can divide psychological addiction into psychological drug addiction and psychological alcohol addiction. The latter makes it almost impossible for a person to socialize or enjoy oneself without alcohol, and they use it to escape from their feelings, and emotions, or to cope with mental health problems.

On the other hand, psychological drug addiction refers to the use of illegal drugs and prescription medications like opioids to the point a person becomes obsessed with them and engages in risky behaviors or exhibits an irritable mood when not using them.

Psychological theories of addiction depict the risky behaviors wherein a person uses drugs or substances as a type of escape from their current situation, especially if that situation is characterized by negative events.

What are the causes of psychological addiction?

The causes of psychological addiction include trauma, mental health disorders, peer pressure, and an unhealthy environment. In most cases, a combination of different factors plays a role.

One of the major causes of psychological addiction is trauma. According to a paper from the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, trauma and addiction tend to co-occur. For example, 66% of women and 11% of men with opioid addiction have a history of sexual abuse. Multiple theories circulate about the connection between trauma (PTSD) and addiction. Some theories suggest people develop an addiction because they attempt to manage PTSD symptoms, whereas other theories imply addiction makes PTSD worse. Genetic predisposition is also involved.

Other factors associated with psychological addiction include mental health disorders such as depression, ADHD, and anxiety. Peer pressure can also result in someone’s motivation to use drugs and become psychologically addicted to them. Also, psychological addiction may stem from an unhealthy environment, i.e., from situations when it becomes a learned behavior. This happens in persons with a family history of addiction or individuals who socialize with drug users.

What is the process of psychological addiction?

The psychological addiction process starts when the addictive agent activates the pleasure center in the brain. As a result, the person wants to recreate the same pleasurable feelings by using the specific substance again. In other words, the brain’s biology plays a crucial role in the development of psychological addiction. More precisely, upon taking a drug or substance, the activation of the brain’s nucleus accumbens ensues.

The nucleus accumbens is located in the area of the brain called the basal forebrain. This region is crucial for modulating the processing of emotions, motivation, reward, and pleasure. Not only does nucleus accumbens participate in the processing of those feelings, but it also gives you the desire to recreate them. As a person attempts to achieve the drug-produced feelings again, they get into the vicious cycle that leads to psychological addiction. That happens due to excessive release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, according to a study from Neuropharmacology. This mechanism of action isn’t just present in cases when a person is addicted to drugs; it also underlies sex addiction psychology.

Not every person who experiences pleasure or satisfaction will become addicted to something, which is why the causes of psychological addiction mentioned above explain why someone is more likely to have this problem. The psychology of addictive behaviors is a complex field and shows the true severity of these problems.

What are the symptoms of psychological addiction?

woman sitting smoking on a stairway

Symptoms of psychological addiction tend to vary from one person to another because everyone experiences the drug addiction psychology process differently. The common symptoms of psychological addiction are listed below.

  • Cravings: A strong desire to use an addictive agent. This overwhelming emotional experience can lead to mood swings, irritability, depression, anger, and other emotions and behaviors that go away once the person starts using the drug or substance again. Cravings intensify and worsen addiction and its consequences.
  • Loss of interest: Psychological dependence manifests itself through a lack of interest in other activities, including those a person used to enjoy, in favor of thinking about or using drugs or substances. With a lack of interest, a person isolates themselves from other people and aggravates their addiction.
  • Obsession with drug or substance: А person becomes so obsessed with a certain drug or substance they believe they need it to perform functions like sleeping, doing their job, or handling other aspects of life. An addicted individual also spends a lot of time thinking about the drug, obtaining it, and planning their whole life around it. As the obsession grows, so does physical dependence too. This leads to the need for greater amounts of drugs.
  • Denial: Оne of the most severe symptoms of psychological addiction is denial meaning a person refuses to acknowledge the presence of a problem or becomes angry when someone mentions it. Denial pushes an addicted individual further in the dangers of addiction.
  • Cognitive problems: Аddiction to a drug or substance can cause problems with memory, focus and concentration, problem-solving skills, and other aspects of judgment. When that happens, a person uses the addictive agent again in order to combat these problems, and the vicious cycle continues.

What is the difference between psychological addiction and psychological dependence?

The difference between psychological addiction and psychological dependence is in the severity of the use of a substance or drug. Dependence doesn’t always indicate addiction, but it accompanies it.

What’s addiction vs. dependence really about? Addiction refers to the compulsive urge to use substances despite the consequences they cause and the inability to stop using them, even if a person attempts to do it. The term dependence refers to developing tolerance and experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Besides the psychological model of addiction, a person can also experience physical addiction and dependence, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Since dependence often leads to addiction, the latter is considered more dangerous. Addiction is the most severe form of substance abuse.

What does psychological withdrawal look like?

Psychological withdrawal looks like intense fear and panic when a person is not using the addictive agent. When it comes to withdrawal, most people usually think of classic physiological addiction withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, irritability, and appetite changes, among others.

However, persons with addiction can also experience psychological withdrawal, which refers to the psychological effects associated with the cease of the use of drugs and substances. In this case, withdrawal symptoms may include anxiety, depression, decreased motivation, apathy, difficulty experiencing pleasure. Some patients may experience serious symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

Risks that influence the severity of the psychological withdrawal symptoms include the level of addiction or dependency, length of time abusing the drug, type of addictive agent, and amount of drug used, just to name a few.

Treatment for psychological withdrawal may include a combination of therapy and medications. In some cases, medications are necessary to address underlying mental health problems.

What are the treatment options for psychological addiction?

young man at a counseling session

Treatment options for psychological addiction are patient-centric, meaning they put a strong focus on the specific needs of each patient. While treatment of physical addiction is straightforward and includes detoxification and other approaches, the management of psychological dependence is more complex. For some patients, psychological addiction may resolve itself with the treatment of physical addiction; however, in most cases, that is not enough. Detox doesn’t address the underlying reasons and motivations behind substance abuse.

For that reason, psychological addiction treatment requires rehab and therapy or medications for the treatment of underlying mental health problems. Rehab centers serve to provide support and treatment for persons as they remove the drug out of the system and recover from both physical and psychological consequences of addiction. Through individual and group counseling sessions, rehabs enable patients to adopt healthier coping mechanisms in the presence of triggers that are used to propel their substance abuse. Besides substance abuse, this is a good approach for other types of addiction and may even help manage the psychological effects of cell phone addiction.

Rehabs offer inpatient and outpatient treatment approaches. Inpatient treatments are necessary in order to learn how to handle temptations and avoid relapse. During inpatient treatments which may last up to 90 days, patients receive education on what is psychological addiction, therapy, and get relapse prevention plans as well as coping techniques crucial for a sober life.

Outpatient treatment is suitable for persons whose addiction is not severe and individuals who completed inpatient treatment and need support to stay clean. These also include regular counseling sessions as well as support groups.

As mentioned above, therapy is an integral component of psychological addiction treatment. The goal of therapy depends on the specific type employed. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps patients identify negative thoughts and behavioral patterns that encourage or contribute to addiction. Then, during regular therapy sessions with a therapist, the patient works on replacing those negative patterns with more positive alternatives. Besides CBT, other therapy approaches in the treatment of psychological addiction may include motivational interviewing and contingency management.

Motivational interviewing revolves around structured conversations that enable patients to elevate their motivation to overcome substance abuse. Contingency management involves incentives that encourage patients to stay off drug use, according to the American Psychological Association.

A paper from the American Journal of Psychiatry confirms that behavioral therapies for drug abuse are effective. The length of psychological addiction treatment depends on several factors such as the addictive agent, severity of addiction, whether a patient has other addictions, and mental health problems. Most patients need to spend at least three months in treatment. A longer duration of treatment yields the best outcomes.

Can psychological addiction be treated in rehabs?

Psychological addiction can be treated in rehabs. The main objective of rehab centers is to provide a safe and non-judgmental environment where persons with addiction can adopt coping skills and other mechanisms essential for recovery.

Rehabilitation is defined as a set of interventions necessary when a person is experiencing limitations in everyday functioning, in this case when someone struggles with addiction. In rehab centers, persons with addiction receive both treatment and support, especially with psychological dependence withdrawal symptoms. The actual treatment course may depend on the type of addiction or the addictive agent.

Since psychological addiction is deeply connected to a person’s mental health, rehab proves to be an effective approach. Studies confirm that addictions tend to co-occur with a wide range of mental health diseases. Psychological addiction isn’t an exception.
Through therapy sessions, the core of treatment in rehab centers, persons with psychological addiction work on improving their mental health and support their recovery and sobriety.

What is the difference between psychological and physical addiction?

The difference between psychological and physical addiction is that physical addiction occurs when the body’s cells can’t function without a drug or substance, while psychological addiction is a compulsion or perceived need to use the addictive agent.

Although different aspects, physical and psychological addictions have some similarities, according to a paper from Substance Use and Misuse. For example, both types of addiction show that the body needs the specific substance to avoid withdrawal symptoms and help a person experience pleasurable effects.

The main physical addiction vs. psychological addiction difference here is that physical addiction shows the body’s biological and chemical dependence on the addictive agent. On the flip side, psychological addiction is more involved in the addictive process that affects a person’s behavior.

Physical addiction dependency is caused by chemical level changes in the brain. In other words, drugs or substances alter brain chemistry and lead to various symptoms such as anger, depression, lack of sleep, gastrointestinal issues, seizures, and trembling.
That said, psychological dependence is associated with obsession, risky behaviors, and continuing to use the drug or substance despite the problems it causes.

If you, or someone you know, have an addiction to drugs or substances, the healthcare provider or addiction specialist is worth contacting. Besides the evaluation of your addiction, the specialists will explain the physiological addiction process and what makes it so different from physical addiction.