What is addiction?

Slipping into addiction is easier than you think, but understanding the reasons why isn't. The Mix looks at the underlying causes of substance abuse.

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Addiction can affect all areas of your life

Let’s admit it. Life can be painstakingly dull sometimes. And if you’re not bored, you’re probably stressed instead. Thank you, modern life. So it’s hardly surprising young people get the occasional urge to bypass reality and indulge in things like sex, shopping, drinking, taking drugs, gambling, or even computer games.

But when does an indulgence become dependence? And are some people more likely to become addicts than others?

What is addiction?

Addiction is a compulsion to use a substance or persist with certain behaviour to ensure you feel good – or to avoid feeling rotten. An addiction falls into two categories: physical and psychological, and it doesn’t have to be a severe problem to be classed as an addiction – there is such as thing as a mild addiction.

  • Physical addiction occurs after you blitz a substance so much it actually alters your body’s chemistry. This means your body develops a hunger for this drug that you have to keep feeding. If you don’t, your body goes into withdrawal and you get all sort of nasty symptoms until you feed it again.
  • Psychological addiction is when your brain gets hooked to a particular substance or behaviour that ‘rewards’ it, i.e. makes you feel good. The mind is a powerful thing and therefore an addicted brain can produce physical manifestations of withdrawal, including cravings, irritability, insomnia, and depression.

When it comes to alcohol, nicotine and illegal drugs, it’s possible to develop either a physical addiction, psychological addiction, or a mixture of both.

Why/how do you become an addict?

Anyone who takes enough of a certain substance is at risk of becoming addicted to it. But people don’t often overindulge in a particular substance when they’re happy as Larry. There are usually underlying difficulties in an addict’s life that sparked off the addiction. This could be trauma in the family, abuse, neglect, trouble at school/work, or even something as simple as self-esteem issues.

Addiction is actually quite a logical process. If something gives you positive re-enforcement, of course you’re going to want to do it/take it again. It gives you pleasure, it’s fun, it’s enjoyable. The trouble begins when you start repeating the behaviour simply to remove unpleasant feelings, and your life begins to revolve round it.

Are some people more susceptible to addiction to others?

The phrase ‘addictive personality’ gets bandied about a lot but it has no scientific basis. “I like to tell clients that addiction is a great leveller,” says Dr Robert Hill, a consultant clinical psychologist. “No one is immune. Anyone can become an addict.”

However, there are a few factors that may make you more inclined to become an addict. There is a genetic susceptibility to alcohol, and therefore alcoholism is likely to run in a family. This doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to be an alcoholic if a family member is one, but the risk is higher.

Being young is another contributor. Youth is generally a time of experimentation and indulgence in high-risk activity. Teenage brains aren’t wired to think about the long-term consequences of their substance abuse, which can make them more likely to overindulge.

And although there isn’t such a thing as an ‘addictive personality’, people who are sensation-seekers are more likely to experiment. Poverty can be also be a factor, as is growing up in an environment where other people are addicts.

“The main component is an intolerance of experiencing your emotions and being in the present,” says Dr Hill. “There’s an impatience to change one’s mental or physical state. But no personality ‘type’ is protected from addiction.”

What are the signs of an addiction?

Although all different types of personalities and people can develop all types of addictions, the warning signs are usually pretty similar, and include:

  • An unhealthy focus on pursuing the substance/behaviour
  • Excluding other activities that aren’t related to using
  • Going out primarily to use
  • Needing more of the substance/behaviour to get the same high
  • Disregard for other areas of your life including relationships, your health, or career

If it’s you who has an addiction, or a family member or friend, there’s help out there. Recognising you have an addiction in the first place is often the hardest part. It’s an enormous step but once you’ve done it, you’re on your way to freedom.

Next Steps

  • Addaction helps people recover from drug and alcohol addictions.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015