What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., 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 a 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 being stressed, whether or not they have a physical addiction. Since these psychologically based 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. Treating this kind of addiction requires an understanding of how it works psychologically.

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.

Find a Treatment Program here.

Recent posts on Addiction

Is Harvey Weinstein Addicted to Love?

By Stanton Peele Ph.D. on October 14, 2017 in Addiction in Society
Harvey Weinstein sought a mother's love and admiration, combined with sexual devotion, in 20-year-olds, an addiction that doomed him.

Unraveling the Teenage Mind

Adolescence can be a mystifying time for everyone. This new book can help.

When Someone You Love Becomes an Addict

With addiction, love isn't enough. Here's how to get help.

When Your Spouse Is Addicted

How do you cope if your spouse is struggling with addiction? Learn how to be honest, but not enabling.
digital buggu at pexels

Is Collecting Art Healthy?

How to artfully make art make you feel better.

Sex Addiction Summer Camp or Toxic Masculinity?

By David J Ley Ph.D. on October 11, 2017 in Women Who Stray
Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein joins the long line of men who flee to sex addiction treatment in an effort to avoid or suppress sexual scandals.

Harvey Weinstein Proves Sex Addiction Doesn't Exist

By Marty Klein Ph.D. on October 11, 2017 in Sexual Intelligence
Labelling Harvey Weinstein a "sex addict" allows us to confidently say "I'm not like that," rather than encouraging us to look at our own pain.

Self-Soothing Skills Learned in Childhood

Here are some curious childhood stress relievers that will help you identify your own. Your early habits are pathways in your brain that you can build onto today.

When You Love or Hate An Addict You Can Recover, Too

"Talking to a loved one before it's too late could make such a difference and prevent decades of unnecessary malevolence toward a person who cannot help himself."
By Nguyen Thanh Long (Flickr: So what do you want now?) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I Want It Now!

By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. on October 10, 2017 in Science of Choice
The more we disregard our longer-term interests in favor of immediate gratification, the more likely that we will have a range of behavioral problems, including addiction.

Corking 45

By Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D. on October 09, 2017 in Ambigamy
Trump is going nowhere until he's humiliated to his face.

Very Young Male Syndrome

Perceiving life as short has many outcomes associated with it. Being male and having gotten stitches at some point are among them. Evolutionary psychology tells us why.

"Pornography Addiction" in 2017

When does porn use become problematic? Once per day? Ten or more times per month? And what exactly does "problematic porn use" mean anyway? Research doesn't offer answers.

Why Ghosting Is Leading the World's Mental Health Crisis

Our social media bubble is about to burst. With so much information coming at us, we are quickly losing sight of the human connection it was meant to create.

The Numbers Don't Lie

By John-Manuel Andriote on October 04, 2017 in Stonewall Strong
Think all gay men are drug-addled, sex-crazed, risk-taking hedonists? Think again this LGBT History Month.

Pharma Corruption Started the Opioid Epidemic

By Allen J Frances M.D. on October 04, 2017 in Saving Normal
Pharma caused the deadly opioid epidemic and should be held accountable for cleaning up the mess it created.

What Makes a Good Addiction Treatment Program?

"How do I know if an addiction treatment program actually works?" Get beyond the advertising and go right to the science.

Don't Let a Loved One Steal Your Joy

By Fran Simone Ph.D. on October 03, 2017 in A Family Affair
Is your loved one stealing your joy? Here are some ways to get it back.

Exorcise the Devil-vs-angel Analogy from Health Behaviors

Deciding what to eat for lunch isn't a battle between good and evil. It's just a choice. We can learn a lot by treating it as one.

What Causes Brain Zaps?

Brain zaps can be an unbearable side-effect of discontinuing an antidepressant. Although these brain shocks are often described as harmless, they may in fact be minor seizures.

Do You Have Social Media Disorder?

Is your social media use just enthusiastic or do you have a disorder? The 9-question Social Media Disorder scale can help you distinguish.

Today the Disease Theory Is Argued in Court

By Stanton Peele Ph.D. on October 02, 2017 in Addiction in Society
The Massachusetts Supreme Court commences today deciding whether addiction is a disease that removes the capacity to choose. What would be its implications for decriminalization?

Your Mother's Fatty Diet

By Mark Borigini M.D. on September 30, 2017 in Overcoming Pain
The specter of XXL shopping sprees, clogged arteries, and a heart attack while running to catch a bus always seemed to pop into my visual field when staring at the dessert bar.

10 Tips for Managing the Overwhelming Stress of Trying Times

By Deborah L. Davis Ph.D. on September 30, 2017 in Laugh, Cry, Live
Feeling bombarded by record-breaking natural disasters, the opioid epidemic, and ongoing political and social strife? Here are 10 key tips for managing stress during trying times.
By Maria Raquel Cochez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

8 Predictors of Early Onset of Binge Eating

By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. on September 28, 2017 in Science of Choice
Youth with loss of control go on to experience persistent and intensified problematic eating patterns during adulthood.
rf123

Can Divorce Cause Addiction?

When choosing comfort after your split, make sure it's not something you might lean on too much.

Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency

Can we please stop pathologizing the desire to love and help?

How Losing a Parent Can Impact Your Mental Health

Complicated grief often results in attempts to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Social Media Addicts Need to Feed Their Egos

By Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D. on September 26, 2017 in Your Online Secrets
Social media addiction is tied to narcissism and low self-esteem in a new study.

Are You a Social Media Addict?

By Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D. on September 26, 2017 in Your Online Secrets
Are you addicted to social media or just a frequent user? This short psychological survey can help you find out.