What is addiction?

There’s a lot of confusion about what the word “addiction” really means. It can make it really difficult to tell if you have a problem.

Addiction is a medical condition

Sometimes people talk about addiction in a way that makes it seem like a moral failure—like people who struggle with addiction are “selfish” or “bad.” But addiction is actually a disorder of the brain. Addiction “hijacks” the reward pathways of your brain [1], making it physically more difficult to make healthy choices about your substance use. This means that addiction is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. It’s also a type of mental illness [2].

How to recognize addiction

Only a medical professional can diagnose addiction. But the American Society of Addiction Medicine outlines five key signs [3] that separate addiction from other types of substance use:

  • You can’t stop using drugs or alcohol—at least not for long. You might try for a while, but you keep going back for more.
  • You experience intense cravings. When you’re not using drugs or alcohol, you’re thinking about using. You might be willing to do extreme or dangerous things to get drugs or alcohol.
  • You have trouble managing your emotions. Drugs and alcohol replace your other coping skills. You become more sensitive to stress. You have a harder time identifying exactly what it is you’re feeling.
  • Your drug or alcohol use interferes with your daily life or your relationships. Over time, your behavior gets more and more out of control. Your time and money go to drugs and alcohol in place of your other responsibilities. Other people start to become frustrated with your behavior.
  • You have less and less awareness of the negative consequences. The longer you use, the less you notice how it’s affecting you and the people around you. Even extremely severe negative consequences, like having a child removed from the home by CPS, are not enough to motivate you to stop. Often other people notice that your drug or alcohol use is a problem before you do.

Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol fits this description. But you also don’t have to be addicted for it to cause problems in your life! Many people recognize the negative impact drugs and alcohol have on their lives and decide to cut back or quit on their own. Once things progress to the point of addiction, it becomes extremely difficult to stop without help.

If you think you might be addicted to drugs or alcohol, take our free and confidential addiction test to find out if you are at risk. Be open to feedback from other people who might express concern. A doctor or therapist can help you explore treatment options.

Addiction and other mental illnesses

Many people who live with addiction also have at least one other type of mental illness [2]. You might hear professionals call this dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Treatment for co-occurring disorders is most effective when it addresses each of the conditions rather than just focusing on one or the other. Fortunately, many of the treatments for addiction also address other mental illnesses, and vice versa.

Is it just drugs and alcohol?

The current definitions of “addiction” generally refer only to drugs and alcohol. But more and more mental health professionals are recognizing that anything that stimulates the reward pathways in the brain can be addictive. These “behavioral addictions” might include sex, gambling, food, and even spending too much time on the Internet. Whatever the behavior, the pattern is the same: you can’t seem to stop on your own, the behavior interferes with your life and relationships, and you lose your awareness of the negative consequences.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Drugs and the Brain. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health
  3. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2011). Public Policy Statement: Definition of Addiction. Retrieved from https://sitefinitystorage.blob.core.windows.net/sitefinity-production-blobs/b0209701-2099-441a-92c3-eb60c4a387cb?sfvrsn=a8f64512_0

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