What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (for example, alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (such as gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.

The word addiction is used in several different ways. One definition describes physical addiction. This is a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a drug so that drug no longer has the same effect, otherwise known as tolerance. Another form of physical addiction is the phenomenon of overreaction by the brain to drugs (or to cues associated with the drugs). An alcoholic walking into a bar, for instance, will feel an extra pull to have a drink because of these cues.

However, most addictive behavior is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People commonly use drugs, gamble, or shop compulsively in reaction to stress, whether or not they have a physical addiction. Since these addictions are not based on drug or brain effects, they can account for why people frequently switch addictive actions from one drug to a completely different kind of drug, or even to a non-drug behavior. The focus of the addiction isn't what matters; it's the need to take action under certain kinds of stress. Treatment requires an understanding of how it works.

When referring to any kind of addiction, it is important to recognize that its cause is not simply a search for pleasure and that addiction has nothing to do with one's morality or strength of character. Experts debate whether addiction is a "disease" or a true mental illness, whether drug dependence and addiction mean the same thing, and many other aspects of addiction. Such debates are not likely to be resolved soon. But the lack of resolution does not preclude effective treatment.

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Recent posts on Addiction

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The New Mental Health Parity: Women Surge in ADHD, Binges

By Stanton Peele Ph.D. on January 19, 2018 in Addiction in Society
Women are changing in the frequency with which they display behavioral disorders, or at least in the ways and types of substances they consume.

What Exactly Is Mindfulness? It’s NOT What You Think.

Mindfulness is so much more than meditation. The real meditation is your life.
By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

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By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. on January 17, 2018 in Science of Choice
An important way to enhance self-control is to use our emotions to achieve challenging goals.

Let's Commend Fact-Based Thinking: Except With Alcohol

By Stanton Peele Ph.D. on January 17, 2018 in Addiction in Society
Kurt Andersen hates irrationality, except when it comes to alcohol.

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By Michael Ungar Ph.D. on January 16, 2018 in Nurturing Resilience
If we’re going to prevent children putting themselves at risk for mental disorders, parents and communities are going to have to impose some rules and take a lesson from Iceland.

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By Marty Klein Ph.D. on January 16, 2018 in Sexual Intelligence
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By Fran Simone Ph.D. on January 13, 2018 in A Family Affair
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By Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. on January 12, 2018 in In Excess
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Pinterest

Family Relationships in Early Stages of Substance Use Change

By Michael Ascher M.D. on January 11, 2018 in Unhooked
Whether you are the person with the substance use problem in early stages of change or someone who loves them, everyone needs a road map to navigate existing family relationships.

Infographic: Teen Substance Use and Media

By Michele Ybarra MPH, Ph.D. on January 10, 2018 in Connected
These statistics make clear that we must encourage the teens in our lives to think critically about how media uses different strategies to try to influence their behavior.
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Technology Designed for Addiction

By David Dillard-Wright Ph.D. on January 04, 2018 in Boundless
Have trouble limiting social media exposure? Tech giants want it that way.

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By The Book Brigade on January 04, 2018 in The Author Speaks
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How to Win Mindless Loyalty

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Eating: A Manifesto for Recovery from Food Addiction

By Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H. on December 27, 2017 in Real Healing
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Video Gaming Disorder Is Now a Mental Health Condition

By Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D. on December 26, 2017 in Your Online Secrets
The World Health Organization will name Gaming Disorder as a mental health condition in their forthcoming diagnostic manual, the International Classification of Diseases.

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Taking Drugs on Christmas: A Reverse Temperance Tale

By Stanton Peele Ph.D. on December 24, 2017 in Addiction in Society
Drugs can be consumed in positive ways in positive surroundings with positive people.

The Abstinence Myth in Treatment

By Adi Jaffe Ph.D. on December 24, 2017 in All About Addiction
In many ways, substance use itself is a symptom of a whole host of issues that go much deeper into the psychology of individuals than mere consumption.

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Teen use of most substances is down, but teens are "vaping" marijuana, and think it's safe.