What Does Addiction Feel Like?


Looking at addiction from the outside-in can leave people feeling confused. Why would someone choose a behaviour that is actively destroying their lives?

Addiction is a complex illness, and is as unique to each individual as fingerprints. However, having some answers to “What does addiction feel like?” can help us to better understand, empathise with, and ultimately help those who are suffering. 

How Does It Feel to Be Addicted?

The experience of addiction is so unique and personal to each individual suffering from it, that it is almost impossible to describe what being addicted to something feels like. This can also feel different depending on if a person is addicted to a substance, or to a behaviour, and can feel different again depending on what substance or behaviour. 

Some quotes from people who have recovered from their own addictions can give us an insight: 

“ It’s like being in a never-ending battle with yourself. You know what you’re doing is destroying your life, but you can’t stop. It’s like being a prisoner in your own mind.”

“Addiction is like trying to fill a void that can never be filled. You keep chasing something that’s always just out of reach, and it leaves you feeling empty inside.”

“Addiction feels like you’re drowning, and the substance is the only thing keeping you afloat. But in reality, it’s dragging you deeper into the abyss.”

“It’s a love-hate relationship with the very thing that’s ruining your life. You hate it for what it’s done to you, but you can’t let go.”

“Addiction is like a dark cloud that follows you everywhere. You can’t escape it, and it casts a shadow over everything you do.”

What is clear in these quotes is a general feeling of powerlessness, of desperation, and of battle within yourself, and within your relationship with the substance. Despite all the bad things addiction brings into your life, there is something else it brings that you cannot live without. 

More concretely, there are some common trends in behaviour that may indicate to someone who has never experienced addiction what it may feel like: 

  • Cravings: Cravings describes intense urges to use the behaviour or substance to which one is addicted. They often feel intense, urgent, overwhelming, and irresistible. 
  • Loss of Control: People often feel a loss of control not only over their addiction, but over all aspects of their life. They find it difficult or almost impossible to stop or reduce their use, despite potential negative consequences.
  • Escapism: Often people use addiction as a means of escaping emotional or psychological pain. Their substance or behaviour provides a brief respite from these difficult emotions, and while it may cause other problems, this serves as a coping mechanism that is far more tolerable than other pains. 
  • Tolerance: Tolerance describes gradually requiring more of a substance or behaviour to experience the desired effect of a ‘high’. This can lead to people ‘chasing the high’ or forever attempting to reach those same levels of euphoria that they did when they first started using. 
  • Withdrawal: When not using the substance or engaging in the behaviour, withdrawal symptoms can occur. These symptoms can be physically and emotionally distressing and can include anxiety, depression, nausea, tremors, and more. Withdrawal can intensify the craving for the addictive substance or behaviour.
  • Shame and Guilt: Particularly present in those who are not in denial about the effects of their addiction on others around them, people can often experience intense feelings of shame or guilt about their addiction and their behaviour. These feelings can be isolating and contribute to the cycle of addiction.
  • Loss of Interest: One of the hallmarks of addiction is a loss of interest in activities and relationships that were once important to someone. They are willing to ‘give up’ other things in order to dedicate more time and focus to their addiction. 
  • Secrecy: Secrets are addiction’s best friend. Addicts may go to great lengths to deceive people, hide their addiction, and keep massive secrets in the name of protecting their addiction. 
  • Conflict: Addiction can lead to conflicts with family, friends, and coworkers. These conflicts can be emotionally draining and contribute to a sense of desperation and hopelessness.
  • Financial Strain: Addiction can be expensive, leading to financial difficulties and a sense of desperation to obtain the means to support the addiction.
  • Loss of Self: Those experiencing addiction often describe an erosion of their sense of self. They describe feeling they have lost control of their lives and any sense of who they were, are, or want to be.

Do Addicts Know They Are Addicted?

Not all addicts are aware that they have an addiction, or even that their use of the substance or behaviour is problematic. The awareness of addiction can vary from person to person, and changes over time for each individual. 

Many individuals in addiction experience what’s referred to as ‘denial’. This is either a conscious or unconscious rejection of reality regarding their level of control and the impacts of the substance/behaviour on their life. 

Those in denial often do not fully recognise the signs of addiction or understand the impact it has on their life. They may attribute negative consequences to external factors rather than their substance use. They may even be enabled by others in their life to continue using in a harmful way, justifying their use as non-problematic. 

Addiction also develops gradually, with a progressive increase in tolerance and cumulative negative impacts on the addict themselves. Some individuals may not realise they are addicted until they experience severe consequences or hit a crisis point, often referred to a ‘rock bottom’.

On the other hand, some individuals do recognise their addiction and actively seek help. They may have moments of clarity where they realise the extent of their dependency and its negative effects.

In psychology, the journey from complete denial into an acceptance and willingness to change can be described using the “Transtheoretical Model of Change”, or “The Cycle of Change”. Developed by Prochaska and DiClemente, this model can be used to understand someone’s ‘readiness’ to change when it comes to addiction. 

Let’s use an imaginary person struggling with cocaine addiction, Jake, to understand how the cycle works:

  1. Precontemplation: At this stage, Jake is not yet aware that he has a cocaine addiction, and is in denial about it. He has no intention of changing his use patterns, and minimises the consequences of his behaviour, often resisting attempts from others to persuade him otherwise.
  2. Contemplation: Jake has started to recognise that his cocaine use is getting out of hand, and is thinking about cutting down. He’s starting to weigh up the pros and cons of his use, but isn’t quite convinced that he needs to do something about it yet. 
  3. Preparation: Jake has decided he’s ready to make a change and get help. He has started to research potential rehab clinics, and is learning more about how to undergo a withdrawal; he is preparing himself to make changes. 
  4. Action: Here, Jake is taking real steps to modify his behaviour. He has checked into a rehabilitation clinic, and is making a lot of effort towards real change. 
  5. Maintenance: Now that he is clean, sober, and back to ‘real life’, Jake needs to maintain his recovery journey moving forward. Work is hard to keep up his new lifestyle, but using his tools from therapy, Jake is able to stay away from cocaine. 
  6. Lapse/Relapse: It is very common for people to experience at least one lapse or relapse in their recovery journey. Lapse or relapse does not mean that Jake has failed, as long as he ‘gets back on the horse’ and makes attempts to rejoin his recovery pathway. 
  7. Termination: Not everyone reaches this stage, but it represents a state where Jake has fully integrated the new behaviour into his life, and the risk of relapse is minimal. Jake no longer experiences cravings or temptations related to the substance.

This is called a cycle because often people do not progress through the stages in a linear fashion. They may experience lapses, or relapses, many times before managing to achieve long term successful recovery. 

Understanding where someone is in the stages of change can help tailor interventions and support to their specific needs. It’s also crucial to recognise that the process of change is highly individual, and people progress at their own pace.

Suffering From Addiction? We Can Help

Clinic Les Alpes is a leading provider of world-class addiction treatment and recovery services. If you think you, or someone you care about, are struggling with substance use or another addiction, we’re here to provide support.

Nestled in the tranquil hills alongside Lake Geneva, our facility offers individuals seeking recovery a private, secure, and comfortable environment. Our unwavering commitment to excellence ensures a luxurious experience, complete with round-the-clock access to medical professionals, offering reassurance to families and friends that their loved ones are receiving expert care during detox and treatment.

Under the guidance of a personal therapist, patients collaborate with our diverse, multi-disciplinary team to develop an individualised treatment plan that enables their involvement in our Minnesota Model-based program. Our team employs a wide range of evidence-based treatments and approaches to empower patients through therapeutic interventions, psychoeducation, and complementary therapies that address both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction.

For more information or if you have questions about referrals, our treatments, or our facilities, please feel free to reach out to our team.

Summary – What Does Addiction Feel Like

Every person’s experience of addiction is different, however one aspect that remains consistent is this feeling of inescapability, and dependence. For some, they may not be aware of this dynamic yet, and therefore be unprepare to change or challenge their addiction.

Having an idea of what addiction may feel like can help build resilience in battling this damaging illness. However, only those who have experienced addiction before will truly know the answer to “What does addiction feel like?”.

Clinically Reviewed By

Brittany Hunt

Brittany Hunt is an internationally experienced clinician, specialised in treating addictions and co-occurring disorders. Having worked in the public and private sector, she utilises holistic and evidence-based approaches designed to empower the patients in their recovery journeys. A graduate of The University of Auckland, she has a Bachelor of Health Sciences majoring in Mental Health and Addictions, a diploma in Psychology and Counselling and a Post-Graduate degree in Health Sciences, majoring in Addictions. She is a fully registered practitioner under the Drug and Alcohol Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ).

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