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

Zimmerman family, used with permission

Requiem For a Sleepwalker

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By Elly Vintiadis Ph.D. on February 18, 2018 in Minding the Mind
Are mass shooters mentally ill? We should not assume that they are.

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By John A. Johnson Ph.D. on February 17, 2018 in Cui Bono
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By Emily T. Troscianko on February 17, 2018 in A Hunger Artist
I analyse the ABA literature to explore whether or not the translation from alcohol addiction to eating disorders results in coherent and constructive principles and practices.

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Unwanted Inheritance

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By Stanton Peele Ph.D. on February 13, 2018 in Addiction in Society
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Recent research suggests that "birthing" your inner clown can be therapeutic.

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By Shainna Ali Ph.D. on February 12, 2018 in A Modern Mentality
Technology is integrated into our daily lives. At what point are we at risk for crossing the fine line from general use to problematic use?

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By Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. on February 12, 2018 in In Excess
Research into 'workaholism' and 'work addiction' appears to have grown over the last decade and most view the constructs as interchangeable. But is that really the case?
“Mania and Melancholia”/ Wellcome Library, London/CC BY 4.0

Has Medicine Lost Its Mind?

By Robert C. Smith M.D. on February 07, 2018 in Patient Zero
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"It ain't about what I want, it's about what I can give."

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By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. on February 06, 2018 in Science of Choice
One of the major goals of drug addiction treatment is to teach addicts how to deal with cravings.

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It’s Complicated

By Konstantin Lukin Ph.D. on February 05, 2018 in The Man Cave
You are in a perfect relationship - it’s everything you've been looking for! But what if this relationship which you are currently engaged in, is actually not serving you at all?

Want Teens To Smoke Less Pot? Legalize It

By Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D. on February 05, 2018 in Beastly Behavior
The belief that the stigmatization of drugs as illegal and dangerous reduces teen drug use is not just wrong. It's backwards.

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photo courtesy of Pixabay

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Are you more addicted to your devices than you care to admit? A little mindfulness can go a long way.

Risky Business

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"American Crime," a true-to-life television crime series, offers a startlingly different — and accurate — portrayal of addiction.

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By Mendi Baron on January 29, 2018 in On the Verge
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Depression and My Family Tree

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I thought I was just a drama queen until I found about my family's history of depression.

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Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder in ICD-11

By David J Ley Ph.D. on January 24, 2018 in Women Who Stray
If Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder is accepted into ICD-11, as appears likely, what does that mean for the great sex addiction debate?

Acute Marijuana-Induced Psychosis May Predict Future Illness

Forty-seven percent of individuals who experience acute psychotic symptoms following marijuana use later develop schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Half do so within 3 to 4 years.