Why We Should Be Looking at Addiction as a Symptom Instead of an Isolated Disorder

Alcohol addicted man portrait alone with spirit bottle

People are not born addicted.

With this basic understanding, we can acknowledge that addictive behaviors develop as a person progresses throughout the various stages of life.

Whether the addiction is due to genetics, environmental factors, or learned behavior, nobody is born holding a bottle of wine or looking for their next “fix.”

Acknowledging this is one of the keys to understanding addiction.

Inherently, substance use or behavioral addictions are not organically present at birth, they develop throughout a person’s life, but the question is why addiction is such a problem for some of us and not others.

What is addiction?

Various descriptions of addiction can be found in hundreds of online research papers and medical abstracts – and you may find some of these definitions a little confusing at times.

One paper described addiction (also known as substance use disorder) as “a relapsing disorder that involves compulsive alcohol or drug use, where the individual is unable to quit or cut back, despite how negatively it impacts their life.”

Continued substance use despite negative consequences

An article by Psychology Today described addiction as “continued substance use despite the development of negative consequences – whether to self, relationships, finances, school or work performance – and the inability to control use” (Signs and Symptoms of Addiction, Psychology Today). 

The inability to control substance use despite adverse consequences is a crucial differentiator to someone experimenting with substances now and then and having a full-blown addiction.

The inability to stop something despite its devastating effects is a reality for many people with addiction. Addiction is a chronic, complicated disease that can severely impact the brain and has various causes.


Many addiction specialists and scientists believe that addiction develops due to environmental and biological factors; such risk factors contribute to substance abuse and addiction development. Yet, the exact cause of addiction is unknown.

Risk factors

Stop alcohol concept. Person refuse to drink alcohol.

Other risk factors can put a person at risk of addiction, including:

  • Childhood abuse or neglect 
  • Aggressive behavior in childhood
  • Community poverty
  • Social or peer pressure
  • Having a family history of substance abuse
  • Experimenting with substances or other drugs
  • Having access to substances in the community or at school
  • Trauma 

Addiction statistics

Addiction is a prevalent disease that affects the global population. Statistics show that around 31 million people worldwide have a substance use disorder.

Moreover, alcohol use disorders cause 3.3 million deaths yearly, and around 11 million people abuse drugs by injecting them.

Illegal cannabis use is the most common form of substance abuse globally, with roughly 192 million people abusing the drug regularly.

Lastly, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2017) reported that prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drugs (similar to cannabis), with over 18 million people reporting prescription drug abuse in the United States.

Looking at addiction as a symptom

If we hope to see better health outcomes for people with addiction in the future, in that case, it’s vital that all communities view (and treat) addiction as a symptom of something rather than an isolated disorder.

Fortunately, many mental health communities have acknowledged that substance use is not a disorder that develops by itself (Signs and Symptoms of Addiction, Psychology Today). 

Trauma and its roots in addiction

Addiction specialists are confident that childhood trauma is one of the leading causes of people developing addiction in adulthood.

One study found that 77% of people receiving treatment for a substance use disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder had endured at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE).

Many researchers believe that childhood traumas correlate to a person developing substance use disorders and addiction in later life.

What is trauma?

Flashbacks - a trauma symptom - Tikvah Lake Recovery

It’s no easy task to define trauma objectively, mainly because we all perceive events and situations differently – inherently, trauma is universal, but the experience is subjective.

For example, an experience or event one person deems traumatic may not be how another person perceives the same event or situation.

Trauma isn’t necessarily a particular event or experience. Instead, it’s more about how a person perceives whatever is happening around them.

Trauma is any event (or multiple events) that a person finds physically or emotionally harmful.

The psychological damage creates specific responses that can become chronic in trauma survivors, whose experiences continue to plague them long after the event. 

The above might explain why many individuals feel anxious in specific situations or around certain people.

Trauma triggers can be unconscious, where the person is unaware of them but experiences trepidation and arousal without knowing why, which often leads to self-sabotage and substance abuse.

Traumatic experiences

The research literature reports that traumatic experiences can negatively impact the brain’s circuits, thus affecting impulse regulation.

This could explain why someone with a history of child abuse, neglect, or other traumas, particularly during critical phases of development, may develop issues with managing emotions.

Such experiences can put a person into hyperarousal, where there is an increase in depression, anxiety, and an off-kilter “fight and flight” response, leading to everyday struggles for the individual.

To cope with such conflict, the person may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to escape or soothe unpleasant symptoms; for many, the two most prevalent coping mechanisms are alcohol and drugs.

Why do people turn to substances?

Substances can help tune out or dial down the unpleasant feelings and emotions associated with traumatic memories. 

However, the above is more of a challenge to the sober mind. It’s challenging to confront disturbing feelings and memories when there is no outlet to take the edge off.

Moreover, many people do not have the resources or are too disturbed by their past to think about these experiences soberly, if at all.

Brain changes

Inherently, substances like alcohol and drugs create dramatic brain changes – a person who consumes enough alcohol will be familiar with how it alters their senses, physical reactions, emotions, and perceptions.

Alcohol is a suppressant, meaning that it slows down the nervous system’s primitive functions. For those dealing with the chronic impact of abuse or trauma, alcohol numbs or dials down any disturbing or upsetting emotions.

Escaping difficult memories or emotions

man looking down on a glass of alcohol

Many people drink to the point of “blackout,” which helps them avoid or escape any difficult memories of trauma or abuse that plague them daily. Unfortunately, individuals that use substances to relieve or soothe their distress can become addicted to them; the reasons for this are:

  • The person wants to avoid or ignore painful memories from the past or the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety or depression, and they use substances to function; without them, they may feel panicky or highly anxious.
  • The person’s tolerance to substances is increased through constant use, meaning they need more of the drug to feel normal or okay.
  • The person feels that they cannot cope without the substance and that life is too difficult when not under the influence.


The symptoms of addiction can vary and are dependent on many factors but typically include:

  • Having intense cravings which can occur at anytime
  • Being unable to stop taking a substance, despite various attempts to cut down or quit 
  • Thinking about where you will get your next dose and worrying that you may not be able to get access to a substance
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities you once enjoyed to use the substance
  • Taking a substance knowing the risks and harmful effects, including the physical and psychological damage it can cause
  • Developing a tolerance to a substance and requiring more of a drug to get high or feel normal
  • Engaging in risky behaviors to obtain more of the substance
  • Experiencing financial or relationship problems due to substance abuse
  • Neglecting your appearance and health
  • Lying to your loved ones’ about your whereabouts and how often you take a specific drug or substance
  • Lack of motivation or energy
  • Needing time alone to use substances and being secretive about your activities and whereabouts 

Reaching out

It’s evident from the research that addiction is a complex disease that affects people in various ways. For example, many pathways lead to addiction, and there are many reasons someone engages in addictive behaviors.

Addiction is a symptom of a much larger problem, whether it be childhood trauma, neglect or abuse, or biological factors that drive addictive behaviors.

Therefore, treatment interventions must take a dual-diagnostic approach to treat substance use that addresses the various underlying components and the presenting symptoms.

Addiction can sometimes feel like a mountain that is too steep to climb; however, there is always hope, and with proper treatment and support, people can lead joyous, functional lives after addiction.

Treating addiction as a symptom encourages people to explore its origins, such as unresolved traumas and internal conflict, and address them.

Getting in contact

If you want more information about this article or are struggling with addiction, our Tikvah Lake Recovery team is always here to listen.

We specialize in treating various addictions and mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, trauma, substance abuse, and more. Contact the team today and begin your journey to wellness.

Helpful resources

  1. Signs and Symptoms of Addiction: Psychology Today
  2. Addiction and Trauma: Cora Drew, MA, LMFT, CADC (House of Mercy) and Jen Gauerke, LMHC, CADC, CCTP (Vida Psychotherapy)
David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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