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 continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users 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. Because of tolerance, the biological reaction of withdrawal occurs the drug is discontinued. 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 compulsively use drugs, gamble, or shop nearly always in reaction to being emotionally 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.

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Recent Posts on Addiction

Bribery as Medical Treatment

Smokers are being bribed to give up their habit. This risks turning all human conduct into a disease.

Why Dieters Fail?

A common pattern of failures for chronic dieters and addicts occur when they “fall off the wagon” by violating their diets or consuming the addictive substance.

Thriving Beyond Addiction: A Complete User-Friendly Guide

By The Book Brigade on May 28, 2015 in The Author Speaks
Recovering from addiction doesn't have to be difficult, says psychologist Tom Rohrer. But you do have to know why you want to recover and hold on to that knowledge.

Stop Numbing Out and Awaken to Your Life

Do you frequently numb out with food, television, social media or drama? Escapist habits quietly cheat us of the life that we're meant to live and prevent the healing that wants to take place in our hearts.

Alcohol Abuse and the Elderly: The Problem Worsens

It will come as no surprise that a considerable number of the older people in our nation drink. A drink after work or a couple of glasses of wine with dinner is a habit that can be picked up over a lifetime.

How Addiction Makes Strangers of Those We Love

Addiction can turn those we are closest to into people we don’t recognize – people who lie, steal, manipulate and who appear to value their drug of choice much more than they value us. As we watch in anguish as they turn their backs on all that once had meaning for them, we find ourselves asking, “Why don’t they care?”

End Of Term Report

By Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. on May 28, 2015 in In Excess
Many people confuse the term ‘problem gambling’ with ‘gambling addiction’. These two terms are not inter-changeable. When I give lectures on gambling addiction I always point out that “all gambling addicts are problem gamblers but not all problem gamblers are gambling addicts”. Find out why in my latest article on gambling psychology.

Detoxing after Detox: The Perils of Post-Acute Withdrawal

Detoxification is only the first of a two phase process of withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs. A common misconception is that soon after the offending substances are out of the body, life will get noticeably better and “normal” functioning will return. If only that were true.

The Painful Effects of Smoking

Many people who suffer from chronic pain are cigarette smokers. In fact, recent epidemiological and clinical data indicate that the prevalence of smoking among those in pain may be up to twice the rate found in the general population.

10 Wishes What Loved Ones of Addicts Really Want

By Fran Simone Ph.D. on May 26, 2015 in A Family Affair
If you are related to or in a relationship with someone who abuses alcohol or drugs, life can be filled with many highs and lows. What are some TRUE DESIRES that you might have in common with someone else going through the same process of acceptance and self-help?

Religion and Addiction: Void-Fillers?

By Marc Lewis Ph.D. on May 26, 2015 in Addicted Brains
When addicts face the prospect of permanent abstinence, they stare into a frightening abyss. But that's not so different from the experience of religious people who are losing their faith. For both, the neural circuitry of desire has been harnessed to a fundamental need for connection. And that's a terrible thing to lose.

Reflections on ‘Montage of Heck’

Cobain is the poster child for emotional devastation. And yet, at the same time, there is something in his music which resonates powerfully with his generation. This documentary affords us a view as to how it all got established and played itself out – his pain, his shame, his his inability to relate, his drug addiction, his art, his suicide.

TV Binge Watching Disorder

Hi, I'm Larry, and I Binge Watch TV

No Way Did I Want to Die

Adolescents want to feel pleasure, takes risks and be social. Add in a brain that is impulsive and emotional and you have a set up for potential addiction. This is a story about just such a teen.

Four Tips for Loving Someone with Depression

What do you say and how do you help someone who has depression? What do you do when you fear your loved one’s depression may be turning suicidal? There are many ways you can help.

Pew on Pot and What We Can Learn from Portugal

At the addiction treatment center I founded and serve, we treat people without thought of whether or not their drug of choice is legal or illegal.

Understanding Nomophobia: Just Something Else to Worry About

My appreciation of the connection and conveniences offered by my smartphone might qualify as a pathology. That’s right folks, according to a recent study, I may have a disorder called nomophobia, which means that I get anxious, fearful and stressed out if and when I’m unable to access or use my smartphone.

The Changing Face of the Heroin Addict

Heroin use is spiking across the United States, especially among middle-class populations without prior history of use.

Alcohol Does More Harm Than Heroin or Crack

By Temma Ehrenfeld on May 21, 2015 in Open Gently
We talk about secondhand smoke, but not about "secondhand alcohol abuse," the harm alcohol abusers do to everyone else.

A Startling Update on Addiction

By Denise Cummins Ph.D. on May 20, 2015 in Good Thinking
A growing body of research suggests addiction to certain drugs may be more about avoiding cravings than seeking pleasure.

Is Addiction Really a Medical Problem? It's Complicated

By Temma Ehrenfeld on May 20, 2015 in Open Gently
Addiction, like most health issues, arises from personal choices, physical weakness, and social context.

Pot’s Evolution: How the Drug Has Changed Over the Years

It’s a topic of near-constant conversation in our communities; “Should marijuana be legalized?” In an increasing number of states, the answer is yes. But the debates are clouded by a great deal of misinformation.

How Prescription Pain Meds Hijack Your Brain

In this post, I’d like to explore the science of chronic pain and paint a picture that shows how the brain operates on opiates.

Game On

By Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. on May 19, 2015 in In Excess
In January 2015, a 32-year old male gamer was found dead at a Taiwanese Internet café following a non-stop three-day gaming session. I have spent nearly three decades studying video game addiction — but what turns a hobby into a health risk? Find out more in this article on Internet Gaming Disorder.

Cannabis Addiction Is Linked to Higher Levels of Cortisol

Heavy marijuana use may trigger a stress response that increases cortisol levels.

Behavioral Economics and Health / Part 1

How a short term pleasure, like a cigarette, trumps having a long life.

How Do Drugs Hijack Your Brain?

Occasional use of certain drugs can trigger structural changes in your brain that make some people more likely to become addicts.

Prom Night and the Kids Are Going to Drink: What Do You Do?

Early exposure to alcohol in the home can be harmful to children if it leads to drunkenness, but coaching kids on how to drink responsibly at the prom may keep them safer than just preaching abstinence.

Is Fitspiration Bad For You?

If viewing extremely toned bodies slapped with sentences making us feel guilty for stomaching anything other than a steamed vegetable does galvanize us to go for a jog, is that really so bad?

Why's It So Hard to Quit Smoking? Neuroscience Has New Clues

Neuroscientists have pinpointed specific brain regions that explain why smoking is one of the hardest habits to kick.