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What is Addiction?
Addiction can be substance or behavior related. Learn what causes an addiction and how treatment works.

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What’s the definition of addiction?

An addiction is a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory. It’s about the way your body craves a substance or behavior, especially if it causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of “reward” and lack of concern over consequences.

Someone experiencing an addiction will:

  • be unable stay away from the substance or stop the addictive behavior
  • display a lack of self-control
  • have an increased desire for the substance or behavior
  • dismiss how their behavior may be causing problems
  • lack an emotional response

Over time, addictions can seriously interfere with your daily life. People experiencing addiction are also prone to cycles of relapse and remission. This means they may cycle between intense and mild use. Despite these cycles, addictions will typically worsen over time. They can lead to permanent health complications and serious consequences like bankruptcy.

That’s why it’s important for anyone who is experiencing addiction to seek help. Call 800-622-4357 for confidential and free treatment referral information, if you or someone you know has an addiction. This number is for The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). They’ll be able to provide more information, including guidance on prevention and mental and substance use disorders.

What are the types?

According to U.K. charity Action on Addiction, 1 in 3 people in the world have an addiction of some kind. Addiction can come in the form of any substance or behavior.

The most well-known and serious addiction is to drugs and alcohol. Nearly 1 in 10 Americans have an addiction to both. Of the people with a drug addiction, more than two-thirds also abuse alcohol.

The most common drug addictions are:

Substances or behaviors that can trigger addiction

In 2014,, a website devoted to helping those with addiction, listed the top 10 types of addictions. Besides nicotine, drugs, and alcohol, other common addictions include:

  • coffee or caffeine
  • gambling
  • anger, as a coping strategy
  • food
  • technology
  • sex
  • work

Technology, sex, and work addictions are not recognized as addictions by the American Psychiatric Association in their most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Some habits or social behaviors look like addiction. But in the case of an addiction, a person will typically react negatively when they don’t get their “reward.” For example, someone addicted to coffee can experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms such as severe headaches and irritability.

What are the signs?

Most signs of addiction relate to a person’s impaired ability to maintain self-control. This includes changes that are:

  • social, such as seeking out situations that encourage a substance or behavior
  • behavioral, such increased secrecy
  • health related, such as insomnia or memory loss
  • related to personality

Someone with an addition won’t stop their behavior, even if they recognize the problems the addiction is causing. In some cases, they’ll also display a lack of control, like using more than intended.

Some behavior and emotional changes associated with addiction include:

  • unrealistic or poor assessment of the pros and cons associated with using substances or behaviors
  • blaming other factors or people for their problems
  • increased levels of anxiety, depression, and sadness
  • increased sensitivity and more severe reactions to stress
  • trouble identifying feelings
  • trouble telling the difference between feelings and the physical sensations of one’s emotions

What causes addiction?

Addictive substances and behaviors can create a pleasurable “high” that’s physical and psychological. You’ll typically use more of certain substances or engage in behaviors longer to achieve the same high again. Over time, the addiction becomes difficult to stop.

The brain

Some people may try a substance or behavior and never approach it again, while others become addicted. This is partially due to the brain’s frontal lobes. The frontal lobe allows a person to delay feelings of reward or gratification. In addiction, the frontal lobe malfunctions and gratification is immediate.

Additional areas of the brain may also play a role in addiction. The anterior cingulate cortex and the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with pleasurable sensations, can increase a person’s response when exposed to addictive substances and behaviors.

Other possible causes of addiction include chemical imbalances in the brain and mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. These disorders can lead to coping strategies that become addictions.

Early exposure

Experts believe that repeated and early exposure to addictive substances and behaviors play a significant role. Genetics also increase the likelihood of an addiction by about 50 percent, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

But just because addiction runs in the family does not necessarily mean a person will develop one.

Environment and culture also play a role in how a person responds to a substance or behavior. A lack or disruption in a person’s social support system can lead to substance or behavioral addiction. Traumatic experiences that affect coping abilities can also lead to addictive behaviors.

What are the stages?

Addiction will often play out in stages. Your brain and body’s reactions at early stages of addiction are different from reactions during the later stages.

The four stages of addiction are:

  • experimentation: uses or engages out of curiosity
  • social or regular: uses or engages in social situations or for social reasons
  • problem or risk: uses or engages in an extreme way with disregard for consequences
  • dependency: uses or engages in a behavior on a daily basis, or several times per day, despite possible negative consequences

What are the complications?

Addiction that’s left untreated can lead to long-term consequences. These consequences can be:

  • physical, such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and neurological damage
  • psychological and emotional, such as anxiety, stress, and depression
  • social, such as jail and damaged relationships
  • economic, such as bankruptcy and debt

Different substances and behaviors have different effects on a person’s health. Serious complications can cause health concerns or social situations to result in the end of a life.

How do you treat addiction?

All types of addiction are treatable. The best plans are comprehensive, as addiction often affects many areas of life. Treatments will focus on helping you or the person you know stop seeking and engaging in their addiction.

Common therapies include:

  • medications, for mental disorders such as depression or schizophrenia
  • psychotherapy, including behavioral, talk, and group therapies
  • medical services, to help treat serious complications of addiction, like withdrawal during detox
  • addiction case manager, to help coordinate and check ongoing treatment
  • inpatient addiction treatment
  • self-help and support groups

You can also visit your primary care doctor for an evaluation. The type of treatment a doctor recommends depends on the severity and stage of the addiction. With early stages of addiction, a doctor may recommend medication and therapy. Later stages may benefit from inpatient addiction treatment in a controlled setting.

Written by: Mara Tyler
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by:
Published: Jul 3, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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