The word “addiction” is used more often today than ever before. We hear it applied to the even the most benign behaviors, like a favorite TV show or snack food. But the term can also refer to a dangerous disease. True addiction is more than a bad habit. It is an obsession with a self-destructive substance or behavior.

Some medical professionals believe that addiction is a disorder of the mind, while others claim it’s a physiological (physical) problem. Because of the association that addiction often has with illicit substances and illegal actions, it is often seen as a criminal issue as well.

The topic of addiction is controversial. Because of this, it’s easy to see why the true nature of addiction remains unclear. Is addiction a physical disease? How does it develop? Is it hereditary? Can it be cured? All of these are common questions that often have complex answers.

What Are the Types of Addiction?

Most experts agree that addiction is a chronic, compulsive dependence on a behavior or a substance. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary defines it as “habitual psychological or physiological dependence on a substance or practice that is beyond voluntary control,” (Stedman, 2006).

You can be addicted to any number of things—from those that are inherently dangerous to those that are otherwise harmless. Common addictions include:

  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • tobacco
  • sex
  • gambling
  • caffeine
  • shopping
  • exercise
  • tanning

Regardless of the source of addiction, it is usually destructive in nature and gets worse with time. Someone with an addiction is unable to control how often or how much he or she uses the drug of choice or performs the addictive behavior. 

What Are the Symptoms of Addiction?

The symptoms of addiction vary from person to person. They will also depend on the substance or behavior of choice. However, most addictions have a set of characteristics that may occur either suddenly or over a period of time. These include:

  • increased use of or obsession with the substance
  • change of lifestyle, social activities, or friendships in order to accommodate use or behavior
  • loss of interest in hobbies, goals, or activities that used to bring joy
  • pushing away close family members and friends who may be able to detect a problem
  • loss of employment or other negative work-related problems
  • extreme changes in personality—someone who was once outgoing and social may become withdrawn, or vice versa
  • loss of control over frequency or quantity of use
  • repeated failed attempts to control or stop the addiction

While this list is not complete, an addict will usually show several of these traits. In order to truly diagnose an addiction, it helps to learn more about the preferred substance or behavior. For example, someone with a cocaine addiction will likely show very different symptoms than someone with a gambling addiction.

Addicts become skilled at hiding their behavior. This allows them to maintain access to their addiction without detection. Therefore, it’s not always easy to spot addiction from the outside. Often, it isn’t until something tragic occurs, like an overdose or loss of employment, that people notice something is wrong.

What Causes Addiction?

Many addicts are blamed for having a lack of willpower to overcome their addiction.

Science has shown that that an addicted person’s brain follows certain patterns that can cause both a physiological and psychological dependence. This is true even after just one experience with the drug or behavior of choice. With addiction, the parts of the brain that control motivation, mood, reward, and concentration are stimulated to bring intense pleasure.

Many experts believe that certain people are prone toward addiction because of their unique brain chemistry, while other doctors argue that addiction can happen to anyone.

Most addiction experts agree, however, that addiction is usually caused not just by physiological responses in the brain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), factors like heredity, environment, mental health, and diet may also play a role in the onset and development of addiction. In fact, several factors are usually involved, which can make addiction a difficult condition both to prevent and treat.

Tracking the Progression of Addiction

While not all addictions result in the same negative outcomes or destructive behaviors, most follow a pattern of negative progression. In the first stage, the person experiments with the drug or behavior. He or she may or may not have a good experience, but the brain records the activity and the memory of use.

Next, the user finds himself or herself returning to the substance or behavior more often and finding pleasure from using. In this stage, the brain is forming a conditioned positive response to the act.

In the chronic stage of addiction, the person will continue to use the substance or perform the behavior in order to achieve the same positive response he or she first experienced. He or she will do this despite negative consequences. The good feelings associated with using may not be present at all.

At this point, many doctors argue that the addict is acting on involuntary messages from the brain, trying to repeat the “high” that he or she once achieved to give the brain the reward and pleasure it seeks. By now, the brain depends on the substance. This is why chronic drug addicts experience physical illness when they first try to quit using some drugs.

In cases of shopping and gambling addiction (and other behavioral addictions), the chronic stage would be where the addict begins stealing or going into extreme debt to fuel their habit.

What Are the Treatment Options for Addiction?

Since addiction is a mental and physical disease, it is often treated with traditional methods such as drug therapy and counseling. Inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs are common starting points for many addicts. Inpatient treatment is often good for chronic drug users who need medical help as they detox.

Many doctors also recommend 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and others. These are support groups led by addicts, for addicts. There are also several medications available to treat drug addiction. These are taken under a doctor’s guidance, often for many years. One example is the use of methadone in heroin addicts.

Less traditional medical treatments include brain stimulation therapies like electroconvulsive therapy or vagus nerve stimulation. These are generally targeted toward people with more than one disorder, like drug addiction and depression.

In general, experts believe addiction cannot be cured, only managed. This is why many people call themselves “recovering addicts,” implying the ongoing process. For best results, doctors usually recommend a combination of lifestyle and behavior changes in addition to medical-based therapies. Also, an addict must be willing to change his or her behavior, stop using drugs or engaging in the addictive behavior, and seek help before the process of recovery can even begin.