Knowing there’s a problem your loved one has with addiction is one thing. Learning what is addiction and understanding is it is groundbreaking. One of the significant issues for many people asking themselves the question, “What is addiction?” can be a fundamental lack of understanding of the issue.

A big misconception people have is that addicts drink heavily or abuse purely because they lack self-control. Once the point of addiction takes hold, the decision to continue is not conscious. Your loved one is not making the decisions as their altered brain chemistry prompting inferior choices. For an addict, it’s not about a refusal to quit but about feeling unable to stop.

So what is addiction, generally and specifically?

What Is Addiction?

Addiction occurs when the brain system involving reward and motivation chronically malfunctions.

You can assume the addiction to drink, do drugs, or abuse prescription medication starts when it becomes tough to control and impulsive in spite of harmful consequences. It’s the most natural benchmark to use when considering what is addiction.

Someone suffering from an addiction is likely to display some or all of the following signs:

  • Demonstrate a growing desire for the substance
  • Seem unable to stop their addictive behavior o
  • Show an evident lack of self-control
  • Appear dismissive of the apparent problems their actions cause
  • Lack of emotional response when confronted about their behavior

One of the inbuilt problems when considering addiction is tough to formulate “basic definition” but why is that?

If you think about it, the definition of addiction differs from field to field. How doctors, law enforcement agencies, physiatrists, scientists and the general public think about addiction is often radically different.

To firm up what addiction is, we’ll consider The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) from the American Psychiatric Association and the International Classification of Disease by the World Health Organization.

According to these texts, an addiction needs to meet at least 3 of the seven criteria below.

  1. The desire to Reduce Usage: You consider reducing your intake. Perhaps you have tried and failed to cut back once or on many occasions.
  2. Disruption of Normal Activities: Disrupt in regular activities, social and recreational outings to work end up postponed or otherwise disrupted.
  3. Lack of Control: You often find a drink or use drugs more than you would like. You drink to get drunk and use drugs for the end effect only. You see that once you start, it’s tough to stop until you’re intoxicated and out of control.
  4. Serious Negative Consequences: These consequences can range from your mood and self-esteem through to problems with friends, family, and work. In spite of such dramatic negative results, still, you continue.
  5. Time Spent: You spend a disproportionate amount of time obtaining and using drink or drugs. Do you also invest a great deal of time planning and often concealing this use? How about thinking of cutting down? You sometimes think about recovery. This all adds up to a severe loss of time relative to your other normal activities.
  6. Tolerance: You notice that you drink more or use more drugs over time. You need more to get the same effect.w
  7. Withdrawal: If you try to stop drinking or using drugs, you suffer physical or emotional withdrawal symptoms. From shakes to sweats, anxiety to mood swings, nausea, and vomiting to general irritability, these withdrawal symptoms can be severe and cause you to start using or drinking again.

5 Stages of Addiction

Whether you’re heading down the path to addiction yourself, or you’re trying to determine if a friend or family member is in trouble, five broad stages are culminating in full-blown addiction.

  1. Experimentation: Experimenting with either drink or drugs naturally doesn’t always lead to addiction. Nevertheless, for any addict, this is apparently the first stage. If a friend or loved one starts to experiment with drink or drugs, it can be tricky to establish experimentation. When drinking or drug use starts to become more regular, this is usually the stage at which problems develop.
  2. Habitual Use: At this stage, drinking or drug use has been assimilated into daily life. Although usage might be constant, if someone is still fully functional in their regular activities it can be hard for others to recognize a problem. After all, nothing much is going wrong at this stage.
  3. Risky Use: Everyone has a different perception of what constitutes risky behavior. Again, this is an awkward stage to pinpoint definitively. Pauy attention when drinking or drug use leads to a change in behavior. Spot reckless decisions regardless of consequences, the route to dependence has that kind of grip. Even if the person concerned is unaware of this.
  4. Dependence: Obvious and potentially dangerous behavioral changes present themselves at the stage of dependence. Drinking or using drugs is no longer a choice by this point. The addict’s mind and body are both reliant on whatever they are using.
  5. Addiction: As the stages progress, the culmination is full-blown addiction. When addiction has taken hold, it’s necessary for the addict to change the behaviors that have led to this stage setting in. Professional treatment offers by far the best chance of success.

Types of Addiction

Addiction is typically applied to drink or drugs, but there are other areas of addiction including the following:

  • Coffee
  • Nicotine
  • Gambling
  • Food
  • Sex
  • Work
  • Technology

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not recognize sex, work or technology as addictions. Although in DSM-V, the most recent update, sex addiction was acknowledged but in order to qualify you need more evidence.

While certain habits and behaviors can appear very much like addictions, it’s not the case.

For the average study of addiction, drugs and alcohol are the prime focus. You can estimate that as many as 10% of Americans are addicted to one or the other. Being chemically dependent on 2 or more substance is known as cross-addiction. The consequences of a cross addiction are fatal. and this can lead to even more severe consequences…


Cross-addiction occurs since any addiction works in the same area of the brain. A predisposition to one addiction makes you more likely to suffer from another kind of addiction.

As an example, family history plays a significant role in the propensity to addiction. So, if one of the member of your family is addicted to alcohol, you’ll not only be more likely to develop an alcohol addiction, but also prone to becoming addicted to drugs like opioids or cocaine.

How cross-addiction works is the reason why all reputable recovery programs demand complete abstinence. If you are addicted to alcohol and successfully stop drinking to excess but start smoking more marijuana, this is liable to lead you back to alcohol sooner or later. Although not inevitable, it’s highly probable.

To clarify, this is not to suggest that marijuana in this example is the problem. Usage of any drug at all lowers your inhibitions and reduces the likelihood of proper choices. If you stop one drug, then use another, it shows you don’t want to learn new coping skills. Treat addiction from the inside and out and understand the fatal disease.

Is Addiction a Disease?

It’s worth touching briefly on the question of whether addiction is a disease.

This issue has been the subject of countless books and studies. Addiction as a disease has inspired heated debate public and professionally.

Consider the primary definition of disease: “A disorder of structure or function in a human…especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms is not simply a direct result of physical injury.

Addiction certainly fits neatly within that framework. The consensus has emerged, then, that addiction is a disease, a highly complex illness at that.

In 1988, the World Service Board of Trustees of Narcotics Anonymous disseminated the essay What Is Addiction, revised in 1995 to reflect changing opinion. Concerning the question of whether or not addiction is a disease, the authors of this essay admit that it’s “difficult to answer.” They also state, though, that they feel “addiction is, in fact, a disease.”

What Are Some of The Underlying Causes of Addiction?

There are many schools of thought as to what causes addiction. Here are some of the most common underlying reasons that some people end up addicted to a given substance while others seem perfectly able to moderate usage. This is to a great extent attributed to simple biology…

  • Biology: Family history plays a significant role in addiction. Many studies have suggested up to 50% of addiction is attributed to genetics. Other studies demonstrate the children of addicts are up to 8 times more likely to become addicts themselves. While much of what causes addiction is open for debate, there’s a significant body of scientific opinion backing up the primary role of genetic predisposition.
  • The Brain: While some people try a particular substance and never try it again, others can become dependent. Certain parts of the brain related to reward and gratify can malfunction in some instances leading to a desire for more (and more immediate) gratification. Chemical imbalances in the brain from mental disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia lead to a coping strategy.
  • Environment: Those exposed to patterns of excessive drinking and drug use are at a heightened risk of addiction.
  • Weak Coping Skills When Facing Stressful Situations: Stress is a crucial factor in addiction. When someone is feeling stress, they are likely to seek some form of escapism. Also, in the event of stressful situations breaking out, it’s common to fall back on old patterns of behavior. Seeking new ways of dealing with stressors is not an option for some. The degree of risk attached here hinges in no small extent on coping skills. Someone already drinking heavily or using drugs who is unable to deal with stress more naturally is at increased risk from addiction.
  • Depression or Anxiety: 30% of people with addiction also suffer from underlying depression. The dual diagnosis is hard to pin down since two things here. Addiction can lead to depression while depression can lead to addiction. In the case of someone with a dual diagnosis, it’s not unusual for them to stop drinking or using drugs for a while and then to start again when the feelings of depression or anxiety become too overwhelming.

The Consequences of Addiction

Left untreated, the consequences of addiction can become dire.

From physical and neurological damage through to contracting communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, addiction takes a heavy toll on mind and body both.

The psychological ramifications can be severe with stress, anxiety and even acute depression commonplace.

Relationships tend to unravel and social problems develop.

Legal issues can ensue and financial problems are almost unavoidable when someone is in the full grip of addiction.

Again, the consequences of addiction depend to some extent on the substance to which someone is addicted but if untreated, no addiction leads to a happy ending.

The good news, though, is that while addiction cannot necessarily be cured, it can be treated and managed successfully.

How To Treat Addiction

Ultimately, a better understanding of addiction leads to a stronger chance of successfully treating it.

That said, whether or not addiction is a disease, what causes it and why some people are more prone than others to develop it are secondary to treating addiction.

Firstly, all types of addiction are treatable so if you or someone you know are suffering from any kind of addiction, it doesn’t need to continue, the vicious cycle can be broken.

Whether or not treatment comes about as the result of an intervention or because the addict pre-emptively decides recovery is the best course of action, the best treatment plans are comprehensive and often residential.

Ultimately, the reason for organized treatment programs centers on the fact addiction is a disease. You wouldn’t attempt to treat any other disease at home, alone, with no recourse to medical advice so addiction shouldn’t be any different.

There are a number of different approaches to treating addiction from medication and psychotherapy through to detox for withdrawal and subsequent in-patient treatment.

Final Thoughts

Formal treatment at a recovery center will combine all of these strategies and more so that the addict has the very best support while withdrawing from drink or drugs and the confidence that support will be maintained throughout the process of recovery.

It goes unsaid that the type of treatment depends on the nature and severity of the addiction. Often, medication and/or therapy is an appropriate course of action if addiction is caught during the early stages. This is rarely an adequate strategy with severe, latter-stage addiction where in-patient treatment in a controlled setting is far more effective.

Recovery is a process and that process does not end when the addict is free of drink or drugs. On the contrary, that could be considered the starting point of recovery proper.

Once detoxed and abstinent, a solid system of social support will increase the chances of long-term success in the fight against addiction. Involving friends and family is not something to be ashamed of, but is rather a way to help you overcome the inevitable difficulties ahead.

Beyond this, there are support groups available that can help you to stay on track. While not essential for every addict, formal group sessions are invaluable for many.

If you or someone you know is drinking or using drugs to the point of addiction and you need further information with a view to treatment, get in touch today and we’ll help you achieve the best possible outcome.