Psychological Effects of Addiction

Addictions often affect or change the way a person thinks about things. Your thoughts, or cognitions, can serve many functions. One is defensiveness. An addict who may not be ready to acknowledge her addiction may feel a need to defend her continued use of addictive substances. One method of doing this is to deny in one's thoughts that the addiction is a problem. Or a person may use his thinking processes to rationalize or explain away his continued use of an addictive substance or behavior in spite of the negative consequences.

Thoughts may become obsessive as an addict pursues the use of the addictive substance or behavior to calm the cravings or curb the withdrawal symptoms. Following are some examples that may help you understand how addictions can affect a person's mind and thinking processes.


Denial is the most common thought process used in dealing with addictions. A college student might try to convince herself and others that cocaine use is just part of college life and that on graduation, she'll easily drop it and move into a successful climb up the career ladder. Once a person becomes addicted, she often denies or ignores the strong hold the addiction has on her life. A father may go downstairs after his wife and children are in bed to view pornography, denying that this is anything more than adult entertainment and that it might negatively affect his marriage.

Denial is used by the addict to provide a false sense of security for himself as he tries to convince himself that everything is fine and under control. For friends and loved ones, the addict's denial is very frustrating. From the outside looking in, they can clearly see that very little may be under control for the addict. Confronting an addict's denial may generate a great deal of anger.

One of the most common questions asked by those who care about the addict is how to effectively confront and break through denial. Confronting and facing denial requires honesty and courage on the part of the addict and those who care about her. Detailed help on the issue of denial will be addressed later.


It is a common myth nowadays that young people will grow out of addictive behaviors. Esther Gwinnell, M.D. and Christine Adamec in their book The Encyclopedia of Addictions and Addictive Behaviors assert that addictive behaviors that begin in early and mid-adolescence typically have long-term effects into adulthood.

Obsessive Thinking

Obsessive thinking is thinking focused entirely on a specific object — in this case, an addictive substance or behavior. In the obsessive-thinking mode, the addictive substance or behavior is in the driver's seat and determines the direction of the driver's life. The addiction dictates how the person spends his time and money, who he hangs out with socially, what he has to do to obtain more of the substance, and the excuses he has to make to cover up the obsession. All resources are directed toward obtaining the object of the obsession, which is the addictive substance or behavior.

Obsessive thinking can shut out other thoughts that one should pay attention to — for example, paying one's bills in a timely manner or getting the kids to school on time. In other words, obsessive thoughts can take over one's life.

Grandiose Thinking

Alongside obsessive thinking there is often the companion, grandiose thinking. In simple terms, grandiose thinking conveys the idea “It's all about me!” For the addict indulging in grandiose thinking, nothing is more important in her life than herself and her addiction.

There is a false assumption that others will feel the same and put their own needs aside in deference to the addict. You can imagine the conflicts that arise in the addict's family and social circle when others decide not to support this type of thinking.


The cerebral cortex is the area of our brain involved in thinking, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. The National Institute on Drug Abuse asserts that chronic exposure to drugs of abuse causes disruptions in the brain that negatively affect a person's ability to make sound decisions. At the same time, the brain's drive to take drugs increases.

Thought Distortions

Thought distortions are those thoughts that may contain an element of truth but also contain misinformation or exaggerated information. Thought distortions typically include all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking, and lack the perspective that there may be some truth between the extremes.

For instance, an alcoholic might have a successful treatment experience but six months later, relapse. Rather than seeing this simply as one slip on the road to full recovery, if she was engaging in distorted thinking, she might see herself as a complete failure who doesn't have a chance at beating the addiction.

Another example might be a man who was fired from his job because of his boss finding pornography on a business computer. Distorted thinking would be that everyone in the industry will likely know about his pornography addiction now and he'll never be able to find work in his field again. The truth is that, with treatment, many employers would likely give him a second chance if he had the job skills they were seeking. Distorted thinking needs to be firmly and lovingly challenged in order to help the addict restore his thinking to a realistic perspective of himself and the world around him.

Learning and Memory

The cerebral cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus are areas of the brain involved in learning and memory. Addictions also affect these structures. It is important to know that many of the same brain pathways that involve addictive processes are also responsible for learning and memory. Memories are affected by addictions in two ways.

First, addictions alter the neurological connections in the brain and thus negatively affect learning and memory. Secondly, behavioral connections made between the addictive substance and pleasurable responses are laid down in memory. When reminders of those pleasurable reinforcers are encountered in the environment, memories are recalled and lure the addict to crave her substance yet again.

This is a very frustrating experience for an addicted individual who is fighting for recovery. It is very difficult for her to put these memories of pleasurable responses behind her so she can move forward to a clean and sober life. It is also frustrating and discouraging when an addicted person discovers that his capacity to learn and remember things has suffered. Understanding and patience is called for as someone with addictions fights to defeat these battles of the mind.

What is Korsakoff's syndrome?

Korsakoff's syndrome is a memory disorder commonly caused by a thiamine deficiency associated with alcoholism. Individuals who drink excessive amounts of alcohol often neglect healthy nutrition, and multiple vitamin deficiencies develop. In Korsakoff's syndrome, a person may remember minute details of her past, but be unable to recall what she had for breakfast.

Cognitive functioning, or the capacity of the brain to think, reason, remember, and make decisions, is affected by another neurotransmitter called glutamate. Glutamate also has influence on the pleasure circuit in the brain, though not as significantly as dopamine.

It is also thought that glutamate helps one access the pleasurable memories of substance abuse “highs.” This function of glutamate is related to an addict's tendency to relapse because these pleasurable memories lead to drug-seeking behavior. When the brain's concentration of glutamate is changed through substance abuse and the absorption of glutamate is reduced, memory and learning functions are negatively affected.

Again, it seems that once this type of damage occurs in the brain, the effects are extensive and long-term. As one can see, addictions affect a person's entire physical, emotional, and psychological being. The more these effects and interactions are understood, the more one will be able to engage in successful recovery or help a loved one.

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