Addiction Psychology

What is addiction psychology?

Addiction psychology focuses on understanding the psychological aspects of addiction, including the reasons behind addictive behaviours and how to treat them. 


This discipline examines how biological, psychological and social factors contribute to substance abuse and addiction with one of the main aims being to develop effective prevention and treatment strategies. There’s also a strong focus on helping individuals overcome addiction and maintain long-term recovery rather than only focusing on the theoretical side of the discipline. 


Addiction psychologists work to identify underlying issues, provide therapy and support clients in building healthier lives. Their goal is to reduce the impact of addiction on individuals and society.

How has addiction psychology changed over the years?

As society has evolved, so have our thoughts and approaches toward various issues, including addiction psychology. Below, we take a brief look at how addiction was viewed and treated throughout history:

18th and 19th centuries

  • Moral model: The temperance movement in the 19th century saw addiction, particularly to alcohol, as a moral failing. “Dipsomania” was a term used to describe uncontrollable cravings for alcohol and those afflicted were often seen as lacking willpower.
  • Medicalisation begins: The concept of addiction as a disease started to emerge. Benjamin Rush, a founding father of the United States, argued that alcoholism was a disease needing medical treatment, not just moral reform.

20th century

Early 1900s

  • Psychoanalytic theories: Sigmund Freud and his followers suggested that addiction stemmed from unresolved unconscious conflicts. For example, Freud believed that addiction was a substitute for unmet sexual desires.


Mid-20th century

  • Behavioural approaches: B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning led to the idea that addiction could be understood and treated as a learned behaviour. This shifted the focus from moral and psychoanalytic explanations to observable behaviours.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Founded in 1935, AA introduced the 12-step programme, which combined spiritual and psychological elements. It emphasised the need for personal transformation and community support.

Late 20th century 

1970s – 1980s

  • Biopsychosocial model: This model integrated biological, psychological and social factors, offering a more comprehensive understanding of addiction. Researchers began exploring genetic predispositions and the impact of environment and personal experiences.


  • Neurobiological advances: Advances in brain imaging technology allowed scientists to study the brain’s role in addiction more closely. It became clear that addiction involved changes in brain chemistry and structure, particularly in the reward pathways.

Addiction psychology in the present day

The view of addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease has become widely accepted, emphasising the importance of long-term management and treatment rather than seeking a one-time cure. Also, modern treatment often incorporates a variety of therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). 


The focus, in the modern day, is on treating the whole person and addressing mental health, physical health, and social factors to ensure a comprehensive approach to recovery. With this comes a mandatory focus on all brain, body and behaviour elements. 


Below, we have listed some of the main areas that addiction psychology focuses on in order to achieve a comprehensive approach to recovery:

Abnormal psychology
Explore how mental health conditions deviate from typical behaviour, impacting thoughts, emotions and actions. Understanding these deviations helps in diagnosing and treating psychological disorder…

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Brain disorder
Discover how addiction is considered a brain disorder, affecting the brain’s structure and function. This perspective highlights the importance of medical and therapeutic interventions to restore n…

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Compulsive behaviour
Learn about compulsive behaviour, where individuals feel an overwhelming urge to perform certain actions repeatedly. In addiction, this behaviour becomes uncontrollable, driving the need for compre…

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Understand the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and reward. Addiction hijacks this system, creating intense cravings and reinforcing substance use, making it crucial to addre…

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Neurofeedback is a therapeutic technique that trains the brain to self-regulate. By monitoring brain waves and providing real-time feedback, individuals can improve mental health and reduce addicti…

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Delve into neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. This adaptability is key in addiction recovery, as it enables the brain to heal and develop h…

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Explore the nucleus accumbens, a brain region central to the reward system. It plays a significant role in addiction, as substances trigger its activation, leading to reinforced drug-seeking behavi…

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Psychiatry addresses mental health disorders, including addiction. Psychiatrists diagnose and treat these conditions through medication, therapy and holistic approaches, providing comprehensive car…

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Rebound effect
Learn about the rebound effect, where symptoms return stronger after stopping medication or substances. Understanding this phenomenon is essential in addiction treatment to manage withdrawal and pr…

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Reinforcement in addiction refers to how behaviours are strengthened by rewards. Positive and negative reinforcements play a crucial role in developing and maintaining addiction, highlighting the n…

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Reward system
The reward system is a brain network that regulates feelings of pleasure and motivation. Addiction alters this system, making substances highly desirable. Recovery focuses on restoring balance to e…

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Sensitisation involves heightened responsiveness to a substance after repeated exposure. This increased sensitivity contributes to intense cravings and relapse, emphasising the importance of managi…

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Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that influences mood and well-being. Imbalances can contribute to addiction and mental health disorders. Addressing serotonin levels through therapy and medication c…

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How have advances in addiction psychology influenced addiction rehab programmes?

Advances in addiction psychology have significantly influenced addiction rehab programmes, leading to more effective and personalised treatment approaches. Here are some key ways these advances have shaped rehab programmes:

Personalised treatment plans
Understanding that addiction is a complex and multifaceted condition, rehab programmes now focus on creating individualised treatment plans. These plans consider the unique psychological, social and biological factors of each patient, leading to more effective and tailored interventions.
Trauma-informed care
Advances in understanding the role of trauma in addiction have led to the incorporation of trauma-informed care in rehab programmes. This approach recognises the impact of past trauma on addiction and integrates therapies that address both trauma and substance use disorders simultaneously.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT remains a cornerstone of addiction treatment, with ongoing advancements improving its application. CBT helps patients identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours related to their addiction, providing them with practical coping strategies.
Mindfulness and meditation
Incorporating mindfulness and meditation practices into rehab programs has been shown to reduce stress, increase self-awareness and improve emotional regulation. These practices help patients manage cravings and reduce the risk of relapse.
Holistic approaches
Advances in understanding the mind-body connection have led to the inclusion of holistic therapies such as yoga, acupuncture and art therapy. These therapies address the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of addiction recovery.
Neurofeedback and biofeedback
These techniques use real-time monitoring of brain activity to help patients gain control over certain physiological functions. Neurofeedback and biofeedback can improve emotional regulation and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are often co-occurring with addiction.
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
Advances in pharmacotherapy have improved the use of medications in conjunction with behavioural therapies. MAT can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it easier for patients to focus on their recovery.
Peer support and community involvement
The importance of social support in addiction recovery is now well recognised. Rehab programmes often include peer support groups and community involvement to provide people with a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation.

What’s next?

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, now is the time to seek help. UK-based rehab centres offer comprehensive support tailored to your needs, including medical detox, therapy and aftercare. These facilities provide a safe and nurturing environment to help you regain control and start your journey towards recovery. Don’t wait – reach out today and take the first step towards a healthier, brighter future.

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(Click here to see works cited)

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