What Is Addiction?

One definition of addiction is continually seeking something that you can’t live without. Another definition is when you keep indulging that addiction in spite of the serious consequences it’s causing for you.

There are many different types of addiction and many theories about how addiction develops. There are numerous questions about why addictions even exist and many definitions of what addictions are.

The easiest way to answer “What is addiction” is to tell you what addiction looks like. Equipped with this information, you will be in a better position to come to your own conclusions.

Who Gets an Addiction?

Experts describe addiction as a chronic disease or imbalance of the brain characterized by frequent relapses. The disease presents as a physical or psychological obsession with a substance or a process.

Indulging in the addiction relieves intolerable anxiety, pain and discomfort for a certain amount of time. After that, the addiction must be repeated.

If it isn’t repeated, then internal anxiety and discomfort will start to build until the process is repeated once again. Someone with a full-out addiction will sacrifice life and limb to indulge the addiction and relieve the discomfort.

As you can imagine, addiction has a profound affect on every aspect of a person’s life. It shapes thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Anyone can develop an addiction, and it’s more common than you might think.

Many people with an addiction know that something is wrong. However, when they try to stop without help, they are almost always unsuccessful. Nevertheless, most people who develop an addiction remain convinced that they can break the habit if they really try.

How Do You Know If You’re Addicted?

Most addictions begin harmlessly enough. It’s fun to try out new activities, and those that carry a certain degree of risk can be the most entertaining of all.

You can’t get addicted to heroin if you only try it once, right? And if you enjoy the experience enough to try it again, recreational use is not the same as addiction.

This pattern can continue for months at a time with no discernible consequences. Meanwhile, you are developing a tolerance. You will need more and more of what you’re addicted to if you want to keep feeling the same degree of satisfaction.

What is Addiction?

If the pattern continues, you may reach the point where you need the substance or experience simply to prevent unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. You no longer feel satisfaction. It just keeps you from going into withdrawal. If you reach that point, you may have an addiction.

For a long time, you might not realize the extent to which the addiction has taken over your life. By then, you may be powerless to stop it.

At that point, the addiction has become your number one priority, and it takes precedence over everything else in your life. If you have an addiction, you will do just about anything imaginable to satisfy it.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Get Addicted?

People who suffer from addiction did not set out to become addicts. Many people try activities and substances that are potentially addictive. However, not everyone who experiments with these things develops an addiction. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette.

Humans can be as curious as cats when it comes to new activities. Some people explore addictive activities because friends are doing it. Others hope to reduce stress. Some just want an adventure.

However, only a small percentage of people who indulge in adventurous activities get addicted to them. Most just try something a few times and then move on.

Who Is at Risk for Addiction?

Researchers believe that genetics may be responsible for addiction. Genes may account for between 40 to 60 percent of cases of those who develop a substance use disorder (SUD).

According to addiction specialists, kids raised in homes where there is active alcohol and drug use are more likely to develop an SUD in the future.

Many people who develop an addiction also have one or more mental health disorders. It is unclear whether addiction causes mental health issues or if mental health issues cause addiction. Regardless of which disorder came first, these conditions must be treated separately.

How Does Addiction Affect Your Brain?

Scientists know that addiction affects a person spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. In active addiction, the brain becomes dependent on feel-good chemicals, also called neurotransmitters, released by the brain when indulging the addiction.

These neurotransmitters can profoundly effect behavior. They can give you a single-minded determination to indulge your addiction no matter what.

The neurotransmitter activated by addiction is called dopamine, and it activates the reward system in the brain. That’s what makes the experience so pleasurable, and that’s why people keep doing it.

At some point, the addiction no longer delivers the euphoria it once did. Indulging the addiction is no longer pleasurable. Instead, it becomes something you must do simply to function.

Dopamine production in your brain shuts down. Your brain decides that if you are getting dopamine from somewhere else, why bother to produce it yourself?

Eventually you run out, and you have to replace it. It’s like having a thyroid problem. The gland has stopped producing hormones, so the hormones must be provided in the form of tablets.

Addiction and the brain

What Happens With Untreated Addiction?

If you don’t get help, you might manage to quit. Nevertheless, you’ll feel miserable all the time, and activities you used to care about will no longer matter.

Fortunately, addiction can be treated. It’s manageable. Many people with addiction are able to recover by participating in medication management programs. Some individuals recover in 12-step programs. Others get help at a treatment center.

If you think you might have an addiction, give us a call. We are always here to answer questions.

Our society rewards self-sufficiency and will power. No one wants to admit that they are powerless over something so small as a drug, a drink, a gambling table or an expensive shopping mall.

Most people who are diagnosed with addiction feel like losers, not because they have addictions, but because they haven’t been able to quit them. The upshot can be hiding the addiction so that friends and family won’t realize what a loser you are.

Feelings of shame, failure and a lack of self-respect are common in people who are addicted. Distorted emotions can make you think addiction is all your fault. That’s like considering yourself a loser because you have diabetes.

Is Addiction the Same as Dependency?

Although there is overlap, these two terms mean different things. Dependence means that you have a physical tolerance to a substance. If you don’t use the substance, you get withdrawal symptoms. Someone with a dependency may or may not have an addiction.

How Is Addiction Diagnosed?

Most health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to determine a diagnosis of addiction. Here are the criteria on which this diagnosis rests:

Lack of control

With addiction, choice is removed. You can’t control your using, and you can’t stop at just one. No matter what you try, it never seems to work.

Unable to set limits

Trying to limit an addiction is like trying to stop it. Most people just can’t do it. Nevertheless, you continue to promise yourself and those around you that you will soon quit.

Spending most of your time indulging the addiction

A person in active drug addiction will spend a lot of time using drugs, finding drugs and getting drugs.

You have cravings

Obsession is part of addiction. You can’t get the desire to use out of your mind. It descends out of nowhere and dominates your thoughts. It’s highly unpleasant and distracting.

Irresponsible behavior

When you have an addiction, everything else is secondary. That results in frequent irresponsible actions.

You may be chronically late for work or school. You might spend the mortgage or utility money on addiction. You may run up high credit card balances to finance the addiction.

You might frequently cancel plans with .others or fail to show up at important family gatherings with loved ones.

Someone in active addiction will always have plenty of plausible excuses for their irresponsible behavior. In many cases, they are able to fool people for a long time. However, it eventually gets so bad that no one can ignore it any longer.

Relationship problems

Irresponsible behavior, repeated over and over, is bound to cause interpersonal issues sooner or later. Friends and family know there’s something wrong, but they don’t know how to help or what to do.

Marriages can fall apart. Long-standing friendships can die of neglect. Friends and family can give up and walk away.

Lack of interest and motivation

Things you used to love are left by the wayside as the addiction consumes more of you. Because the production of feel-good brain chemicals has stopped, you no longer feel any joy, pleasure or enthusiasm.

Living dangerously

A life of constant danger is what awaits as addiction deepens its grip. Bad neighborhoods, cheap motels and shady characters don’t matter as long as you get your fix.

Everything just gets worse

Without intervention, these squalid circumstances can become your new normal. The effort of trying to change yourself becomes too much. It’s easier to just get high, and there’s almost always a way to do it.

Getting sober is hard work, and that scares people. What if they can’t do it? On the other hand, someone with a heroin addiction who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms will somehow find a way to walk 30 miles if it means getting high.

Tolerance effects

If it weren’t for tolerance, addiction would be less deadly. Yet, just like inflation, the price of getting high continues to rise.

This is true even if you have a lifetime supply of whatever you’re addicted to. An addiction won’t give you the level of bliss you’re seeking unless you constantly use more.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

As a substance exits your body, feel-good neurotransmitter levels in your brain drop sharply, and withdrawal symptoms appear. The symptoms can be physical or emotional, and they can vary from one person to another. Here are some common examples:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Bone and muscle pain
  • Sweating
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Agitation, restlessness and irritability
  • Bad dreams and nightmares
  • Feeling unbearably hot or intolerably cold
  • Heart palpitations

How Do You Know If Someone Else Is Addicted?

You could just ask them. However, if you’re not comfortable with a direct approach, watch for these six signs:

  • Running with a new group of friends
  • Poor waking and sleeping habits
  • Unexplained absences
  • Uncharacteristic mood swings, emotional outbursts and atypical behavior
  • Lack of motivation
  • Changes in physical appearance

What Does the Science Say About Addiction?

  • One in three people are addicted to something.
  • Genes can greatly increase your addiction risk.
  • People with an alcohol addiction leave the workforce prematurely.
  • Eighty-five percent of people with severe alcohol addiction are also smokers.
  • Genes can increase the probability that you’ll become a smoker.

What Are the Most Common Addictions?

People get addicted to many things. Here are just a few examples, but there are many more:

  • Drugs
  • Alcohol
  • Tanning
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Exercise
  • Shopping
  • Gambling
  • Eating
  • Smartphones
  • Sex
  • Pornography

The goal at Long Island Treatment Center is to restore your well-being and the well-being of others who suffer with addiction. Stop trying to do it all yourself. Call us now at (516) 788-5594 to speak with an addiction specialist.



Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Long Island Treatment Center