An addiction is a habitual compulsion or strong urge by a person to engage in a specific activity or use a particular substance.

The term is often used in reference to drug or alcohol addiction but it also applies to other compulsions, such as out of control Internet use, obsessive sex, compulsive overeating, an uncontrollable desire for porn, problem gambling, hyper or irrational religiosity, or a neurotic need for love.

Factors that have been suggested as causes of addiction include pharmacological, social, genetic, and biological factors.


Some Common Addiction Characteristics

Addiction experts routinely agree that the following list represents some of the most common addiction characteristics that make a negative, damaging, unhealthy impact on society:

  • Addiction necessitates an initial experience with an activity or a substance. The very first experience with the behavior or substance can be seen as an "initiation" that may or may not result in addiction, but which needs to take place in order to set in motion the changes in the addict's brain that are responsible for stimulating an individual to experience the activity or substance again.

  • The activity or substance that trigger addiction must initially elicit feelings of pleasure and changes in mood or emotion.

  • The body and/or brain develop physical tolerance to the activity or substance that requires increasing amounts of the substance or activity to get the same or similar effects.

  • The removal or sudden abstinence of the activity or substance leads to painful, unhealthy, and damaging withdrawal symptoms.

  • Addiction always brings about changes in the addict's brain and mind. Some of these transformation include anatomical changes, physiological changes, behavioral changes, and chemical changes.

  • Addictions develop their own forms of reinforcement. That is, the dependence and tolerance the addict experiences become rewarding and reinforcing in and of themselves, irrespective of the "buzz" or "high" they feel.

  • Independent of physical tolerance, addiction involves psychological and physical dependence correlated with craving that is unrelated to the desire or need to avoid the pain and discomfort of withdrawal.

  • Addictions lead to habitual behavioral problems, take an inordinate amount of the addict's time, activity, and energy, are openly disapproved by the community, and are typified by a gradual obsession with the activity or substance.

Addiction Can Be Physical Or Psychological Or Both

According to the research literature, it is possible to be both physically and psychologically dependent at the same time.

Even though some medical practitioners make little distinction between the two kinds of addiction, since the typical result, namely substance abuse, is the same, the characteristics and causes of physical and psychological addiction are quite dissimilar.

Indeed, this is a fact that greatly influences different treatment methodologies for each form of dependence.

Physical Addiction

Physical dependence on an activity or a substance is characterized by the appearance of distinctive withdrawal symptoms when the substance or the activity is abruptly discontinued.

Ironically, while alcohol, barbiturates, nicotine, opioids, and benzodiazepines have received a lot of documented evidence regarding their ability to cause physical dependence, other similar substances such as most antidepressants, beta-blockers, and cortisone, however, are not considered addictive.

Physical dependency has been determined to be a key component in the psychology of addiction and almost always becomes one of the main sources of motivation that results in the persistence of an addiction.

Having said this, however, the initial "reason" for engaging in activities or behaviors that usually lead to addiction is typically the ability of the activity to create intense pleasure.

Regrettably, with continued use, however, the "goal" for engaging in addictive behavior is not centered on feeling pleasure but rather on relieving the discomfort and the anxiety when the activity or substance is discontinued.

It is the combination of the unattainable initial euphoria and the need for relief from the painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that lead to compulsive use and abuse.

Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction is a dependency of the mind that leads to psychological withdrawal symptoms such as depression, cravings, anxiety, insomnia, and irritability if the activity or substance is suddenly discontinued.

From a theoretical perspective, psychological addiction can occur with any rewarding behavior and is thought to be highly correlated with the dopaminergic reward system within the brain.

Two examples of substances that have been shown to result in strong psychological addiction are the amphetamines and cocaine.

Interestingly, psychological addiction is not limited to drugs or alcohol. Indeed, all sorts of behavioral patterns and activities can be considered "psychologically addictive" if they are harmful. Examples include porn, eating, sex, Internet use, gambling, work, computer use, and vandalism.

Characteristics of Addicts

According to addiction experts and researchers, addicts, not unlike addictions, have identifiable characteristics in common. The following list represents some of the typical characterizes of addicts:

  • They have a tendency to engage in certain activities or to use various substances as substitutes for more appropriate and healthy coping strategies when dealing with anxiety, stress, and with their everyday lives.

  • They have particular susceptibilities or vulnerabilities.

  • They have clearly defined preferences for one substance or activity over another and for how they use the activity or substance of abuse.

  • They find or seek out opportunities for involvement with the substance or activity that will addict them.

  • They are susceptible to the risk of relapse regardless of how successfully they are treated.

  • They have problems with impulse control, self-monitoring, and self-regulation.

  • They don't seek "escape" as much as they search for a way to manage their lives.

  • They tend to have higher-than-normal capacity for various activities or substances. For instance, alcoholics have been frequently known to be able to drink their friends "under the table" and still look as if they are relatively "normal" after drinking enough alcohol that would seriously impair the functioning and health of other individuals.

  • They tend to be thrill seekers and risk takers and expect to have a positive reaction to their behavior before the substance or activity is used or begun.

Is Addiction a Disease?

Many researchers and practitioners view addiction as a disease. According to some researchers who disagree with this view, the disease model of addiction seems to "please" almost everyone.

For instance, individuals with drug problems like this model because they receive special status as "victims" and they also receive special treatment.

Non-drug abusers like this framework because they can tell themselves they don't need to worry because they don't have the "disease."

The treatment industry likes the disease model because there's a lot of money to be made. And the drug manufacturers advocate this view because within this framework, it's not the drugs that are the problem, it's the drug abuser.

Some of those who do not view addiction as a disease think that the disease model leads to dead ends, poor treatment, and three myths: First, that nothing works. Second, that one particular treatment protocol is superior to all others. And third, that all treatments work about equally well.

A new, more comprehensive and research-based view of addiction ties together behavior, emotions, biology, and chemistry in the brain and sees addictive behavior as natural occurring. That is, all of us have the same circuits of rewards, pleasure, and pain.

As a result, almost everyone engages in addictive behaviors to some extent because activities such as sex, drinking, and eating are basic to survival and highly reinforcing.

Moreover, people experience problematic behavior with drugs in much the same way that they do with many other things, especially behaviors and activities that result in short-term rewards such as everyday bad habits and compulsions.

In short, those who do not view addiction as a disease perceive substance abuse as more similar to other behaviors than different and they also believe that drug and alcohol addiction are very similar to other addictions that are experienced by people from all walks of life throughout humanity.

Such a comprehensive framework, it is claimed, will lead to more realistic and effective treatment policies and approaches that result in reduced substance abuse problems.


Conclusion: Addiction

An addiction is a persistent strong urge or craving by an individual to engage in a particular activity or use a specific substance.

Although the term is frequently employed in reference to alcohol or drug addiction, it also applies to other compulsions, such as obsessive gambling, uncontrollable sex, neurotic Internet use, a compelling desire for porn, uncontrollable overeating, or an out of control need for love. Factors that have been suggested as causes of addiction include pharmacological, social, genetic, and biological factors.

Addiction experts point to the fact that both addictions as well as addicts possess characteristics that are observable and predictable.

And finally, while many addiction experts view addiction as a disease, many others in the addiction community see this view as out-of-date and leading to less than optimal treatment.