Understanding Addiction and Recovery

Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" helps us better understand how addiction affects our brains and lives

September 9, 2021
Man thinking about addiction and recovery

Before we begin, answer this question: What are you like when you are hungry?

How do you act when you have not gotten sleep? How do you behave when you are scared? When our basic needs are not met, our behavior feels less in our control. We act more primitive, more easily angered, more hurried and stressed. Understanding what we need helps us to understand our minds and our behaviors.

What Is Maslow’s Hierarchy?

In 1943, esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” that all humans have certain needs that can be understood through an arranged hierarchy, starting with basic survival needs up to more complex needs of the spirit, such as social needs. In this model, one cannot truly fulfill a need unless the need below it is satisfied.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid

What Does This Have To Do With Addiction?

By understanding basic and complex human needs, we can better understand how addiction affects our brains and lives. More importantly, we can use this knowledge to understand and recover from addiction, help our loved ones, and empathize with those who are experiencing the grip of addiction on their lives.

Addiction can put a veil or mask over personal priorities and make them unclear. Addiction creates a mental illusion that drugs or alcohol replace fundamental needs as the most important need to be satisfied. That’s why someone struggling with addiction may risk their physical health, safety, relationships, self-worth and sense of self, just to repeatedly use their substance of choice.

If you haven’t experienced the masked deception of addiction, go back to the question asked at the top. What are you like when you don’t have food, water, sleep, etc.? You would be motivated to do anything to get it. If you are starving, it’s hard to think about your relationships, career growth or personal development. All you want is food. Addiction can create that same feeling for the person who is addicted; it feels like a basic physiological need.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid in early addiction

Experiencing addiction and knowing when to seek help is not as black and white as some may think. Addiction obscures other wants, priorities and needs. There are good days and bad days, as addiction slowly creeps into every level of life and starts replacing other needs to be met. Noting each of the elements of the hierarchy of needs can help identify addiction in yourself or a loved one earlier in this process.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid in late-stage addiction

How Can This Model Aid Recovery?

Just like it is difficult to control your emotions when you are starving, you can not regain control of your life without starting at your basic needs. By working to remove the mask of addiction from each level of need, starting at the bottom, recovery becomes tangible and manageable.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid in addiction recovery

You can download the complete infographic here.

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