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. 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

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What is DBT?

By Greta Gleissner LCSW on September 28, 2016 in Bottom's Up
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is an effective combination of cognitive and behavioral therapies. The goal of DBT is to transform destructive behaviors into positive outcomes.

No, You Cannot Get Attached to Porn

By David J Ley Ph.D. on September 28, 2016 in Women Who Stray
Blaming porn-related personal and relationship problems on addiction disturbance is the worst form of pseudoscience - it's also potentially iatrogenic.

New Love Euphoria Mimics Effects of Crack Cocaine

There are at least 10 compelling reasons to use a model of addiction to crack cocaine to describe the new love's euphoria.

10 Reasons New Love Is Like Crack Cocaine

Off-putting though it may be to some, here are ten reasons why I am sticking with “cocaine rush phase” as the best way to capture the first phase of new relationships.

Recovery Is Not Immune From the Effects of Trauma

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Will Your Gamer Survive College?

By Victoria L. Dunckley M.D. on September 26, 2016 in Mental Wealth
If you're concerned about your son's video game habits spinning out of control when he goes to college, you're right to be worried—but here's what parents can do.
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The Murder Market

By Katherine Ramsland Ph.D. on September 25, 2016 in Shadow Boxing
Novelist takes readers on a very dark journey into the addictive world of the murder market.

This is Your Child's Brain on Video Games

By Victoria L. Dunckley M.D. on September 24, 2016 in Mental Wealth
Playing video games presents an "evolutionary mismatch": A fight-or-flight response unaccompanied by a physical discharge of energy. So guess where all the energy goes?
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How the Words You Use Can Decrease Anxiety

By Richard Taite on September 23, 2016 in Ending Addiction for Good
A healthy concern for your well-being can make you more likely to anticipate and effectively head-off possible threats.

Poetry as an Addiction

By Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. on September 22, 2016 in In Excess
It was recently argued that the act of writing poetry can potentially meet some of the criteria for addiction and has been termed 'poesegraphilia.' This post takes a closer look.

Biased Publication Standards Hinder Schizophrenia Research

By Robert T Muller Ph.D. on September 21, 2016 in Talking About Trauma
Since most research that exists on treatment of schizophrenia is directly funded by pharmaceutical companies, a bias exists towards silencing unfavourable research.

A Simple Way to Keep Your Kids Off Drugs

By Temma Ehrenfeld on September 21, 2016 in Open Gently
Better sleep for pre-teens is tied to less drinking and pot smoking through their 20s.

Study Pinpoints Brain Circuitry of Emotional Decision-Making

By Christopher Bergland on September 20, 2016 in The Athlete's Way
We all know the gut-wrenching feeling of making a tough emotional decision. Recently, MIT neuroscientists pinpointed the brain mechanics behind emotional decision-making.

Recovery Is a Process of Learning, Growth, and Healing

By Dan Mager MSW on September 19, 2016 in Some Assembly Required
Recovery from addiction is the process of sustaining abstinence, and learning and practicing the awareness and skills necessary to live a whole, healthy, and healed life.

The Problem With "Sex Positive"

By Sam Louie MA, LMHC on September 19, 2016 in Minority Report
"Sex positive" is a popular term among certain therapists who believe there's nothing wrong with pornography. Yet if you listen to young people today, they'll tell you otherwise

Cornerstone of Eating Disorder Recovery

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Why You Can’t Walk Away From Him

By Linda Esposito LCSW on September 19, 2016 in From Anxiety to Zen
Do you control, nurture, and protect your partner? Maybe it's time to let go.
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Understanding and Choosing Better Coping Skills

When it comes to better understanding and treating addiction, we can learn a lot by looking at a person’s coping mechanisms.
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Here’s Why Your Brain Makes Quitting Drugs/Alcohol So Hard

By Richard Taite on September 16, 2016 in Ending Addiction for Good
There’s little more tempting than a quick and easy solution to our problems.

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By Ann Smith on September 16, 2016 in Healthy Connections
Parents are hardwired to love and protect their child from birth to death no matter what. What happens when parents begin to unintentionally enable their child?

Can Thumb Sucking Be Addictive?

By Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. on September 15, 2016 in In Excess
Thumb sucking is a common behavior in young children but a small minority carry on the behavior into their adulthood. Is this problematic and could it be described as addictive?
Pixabay, labeled for reuse

Why the Sex Addiction Model Is Not a Humanistic Approach

By Michael Aaron, Ph.D. on September 14, 2016 in Standard Deviations
Plenty of evidence suggests that harm reduction psychotherapy provides a more humanistic alternative to sex addiction treatment.

The Lobby Against Medical Marijuana

By Allen J Frances M.D. on September 13, 2016 in Saving Normal
Protecting profit against patient welfare
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Self-Compassion in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Greta Gleissner LCSW on September 12, 2016 in Bottom's Up
Your eating disorder does not define you. Cultivating self-compassion will help you to understand your experience and find peace within yourself.

Who (or What) Runs Your World?

By Denise R Friedman Ph.D. on September 10, 2016 in Always More to Learn
Is social media really about mind control? Do you need a digital detox?
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How Drum Circles Can Improve, if Not Cure, Your Depression

Have you ever wondered how people used to treat depression before prescription medications were invented?
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How Exercise Can Help Keep You Drug-Free

By Richard Taite on September 09, 2016 in Ending Addiction for Good
Exercise is a part of a healthy lifestyle and stimulates your body’s healthiest mechanisms by releasing feel-good endorphins, stimulating appetite and leading to more restful sleep

Anthony Weiner Is Not a Sex Addict, Neither Is Anyone Else

By Joye Swan Ph.D. on September 08, 2016 in Up Close and Personal
"Sex addiction" doesn't pass muster in medical research, but you'd never know it by those benefiting from keeping it in the public discourse.

Semicolon Punctuates Mental Health Awareness

By Robert T Muller Ph.D. on September 07, 2016 in Talking About Trauma
This global non-profit movement is dedicated to providing support for those struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction, and self-injury.

Life... Don't Talk to Me About Life

By Robert J King Ph.D. on September 07, 2016 in Hive Mind
The U.K. press recently picked up our paper about violence and gambling. Here's why they (and other traits) tend to go together and why this matters.