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

Does Free Will Exist?

Reasonable people can disagree on whether neuroscience casts doubt on free will.
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By Lybi Ma on December 05, 2016 in Brainstorm
Being addicted to pain meds is like having an invader with OCD inside your brain. Guest post by Jacqueline Sheehan.

Coming Home From War and Metallica’s “Confusion”

By William Irwin Ph.D. on December 04, 2016 in Plato on Pop
Though mercifully few of us have PTSD or have done a tour of duty in a combat zone, we have all been scarred. Life is a return from battle.

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By Fran Simone Ph.D. on December 03, 2016 in A Family Affair
Is your loved one breaking your heart? Courage, compassion, and community can help you cope.
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Like Kryptonite for Kratom

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All I Want for Christmas Is a Pony

By Tracy P Alloway Ph.D. on November 30, 2016 in Keep It in Mind
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Analysis: How the AASECT Sex Addiction Statement Was Created

By Michael Aaron, Ph.D. on November 30, 2016 in Standard Deviations
An Insider's Perspective Behind the Scenes of AASECT's Historic Sex Addiction Statement.

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AASECT Releases Historic Position Statement on Sex Addiction

By Michael Aaron, Ph.D. on November 29, 2016 in Standard Deviations
AASECT, the national sex therapy certifying organization releases a groundbreaking position statement about the sex addiction model.

The Craving Mind

By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. on November 28, 2016 in Science of Choice
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By Sam Osherson Ph.D. on November 26, 2016 in Listen Up!
Tired of the unhelpful stigma and shaming surrounding addiction treatment? Here's a different approach.

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By Dan Mager MSW on November 23, 2016 in Some Assembly Required
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The Psychology of Animal Torture

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By Temma Ehrenfeld on November 22, 2016 in Open Gently
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By Temma Ehrenfeld on November 22, 2016 in Open Gently
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Why DEA Should Change Marijuana's Schedule I Classification

By Richard Taite on November 18, 2016 in Ending Addiction for Good
It is time for the DEA to take marijuana out of its Schedule I classification.

Why We Hate Our Exes

Your craving for a dopamine fix that only your ex can provide can also make you angry and hateful toward the one person who is withholding your "drug" from you: your ex.

Mechanophilia Exposed and Explained

By Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. on November 17, 2016 in In Excess
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Shifting from wants to preferences will lead to less suffering and more happiness.

Making a Sexual Debut

By Romeo Vitelli Ph.D. on November 16, 2016 in Media Spotlight
Despite the controversy surrounding first-time sex, most young people in the United States become sexually active long before they reach adulthood.

The Drug Enforcement Agency Has the Wrong Priorities

By Allen J Frances M.D. on November 15, 2016 in Saving Normal
The DEA should stop over-reacting to the relatively small safety risks of Kratom and pot and stop under-reacting to the daily tragedies caused by the opioid epidemic.

“Preventure” – A Program for Fighting Teen Addiction

By Elizabeth Wagele on November 15, 2016 in The Career Within You
Preventure has reduced binge drinking, frequent drug use and alcohol-related problems.

The True Outlaw Attraction of the Heartbreakers

By Michael Friedman Ph.D. on November 15, 2016 in Brick by Brick
In 1975, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan joined Richard Hell and Walter Lure to form the Heartbreakers — “the first great punk rock supergroup.”