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Addiction: What Is It?

Rarely a day goes by without there being a story of addiction in the news. Whether it is a Hollywood star speaking out about their alcohol addiction, or a pop star owning up to problems with drugs, the stories seem to be becoming increasingly common. But what is addiction, and how does it happen?

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a compulsive disorder where the sufferer seeks out something that creates a feeling of pleasure or reward.  These things are often acceptable, every day enjoyable activities, such as having a drink with friends, a little flutter on the horses, shopping, or even sex. But for the addict, the need to seek out the activity, and thus gain the feeling of pleasure it creates, becomes compulsive and starts to impact on their daily life.

According to The American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organisation, addiction is medically defined as meeting at least three of the criteria below:

  • Tolerance – using more of the substance or engaging in more of the activity over time.
  • Withdrawal – experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when stopping the substance or activity. These symptoms could be emotional or physical.
  • Limited control – being unable to stop engaging in the activity once started.
  • Negative consequences – continuing to engage in the addictive activity even though it has a serious negative impact on daily life.
  • Neglecting or postponing activities – cancelling social plans, missing work commitments, neglecting housework, or skipping recreational activities because of the addiction.
  • Spending time or energy on the addiction – spending significant amounts of time planning, obtaining, using, or recovering from the addiction. Spending time thinking about the addiction, concealing the addiction, or thinking about ways to avoid being caught engaging in the addiction.
  • A desire to cut down – thinking about cutting down or controlling the addiction, or making unsuccessful attempts to do this.

How Does Addiction Start?

For many addicts, addiction starts off as something harmless, but over time they build up a tolerance to the substance or activity and have to drink more, or do more, in order to achieve the same feelings of pleasure. This begins the slippery slope into addiction as they gradually increase the amount of substance they are using or the time spent engaging in the activity until it starts to take over their lives, and they have become addicted.

Doctors and scientists still do not know exactly what causes addiction, but they do know that people who suffer from addiction show changes within the brain itself, and these changes worsen as the addiction continues. These changes within the brain make it more difficult for an addict to control their behaviours, and make it much harder for them to resist cravings for their addiction. This goes some way to explaining why so many recovering addicts will relapse, often more than once.

Why Does Addiction Start?

This is another area where doctors and scientists cannot say for sure what the cause is. However, studies into addiction do show that some individuals may be more likely to suffer from addiction than others.

Studies have shown that there may be a genetic factor involved in addiction. People with parents who suffer from addiction are more likely also to become addicts; however, they will not necessarily suffer from the same addiction as their parent.  This suggests that the genetic factor is for a predisposition to addiction rather than for a specific type of addiction.

Environmental factors also play a part in addiction. Individuals who have gone through traumatic experiences are more likely to seek solace in some form of escape, whether that be alcohol, smoking, drugs, computer games, or something else. This can then quite easily become a habit, and then an addiction. It is quite common for people who have suffered some form of abuse as children to become addicted to something as teenagers, particularly if they have not received help to overcome the trauma of abuse.

Other factors that could make someone more likely to succumb to addiction can include stress, peer pressure (particularly amongst young people), certain attitudes and beliefs, some personality types, and depression or anxiety.

What Sort of Help Is Available?

There is a broad range of treatments available to those struggling with addiction, as well as those affected by addiction. At Addiction Helpline, we offer free, impartial advice on all aspects of addiction.

If you are suffering from addiction, we can help you to decide on the kind of treatment that you need as an individual. If you feel that professional residential care would be your best option, we can help you to find the best treatment programme for your situation.

If you are concerned that a loved one may be struggling with addiction, we can give you the help and advice you need to best support your loved one.

So please, whatever your circumstances, call us today.


(Psychiatry) What is addiction?

(Addiction Blog) Why do people become addicted?

(Addictions and Recovery) What is addiction?

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