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What Is Addiction?

When thinking of the term “addiction” many people associate it with drugs. Thinking of an “addict” often brings forth images of someone in the streets looking for their next fix of heroin or cocaine. While addiction to illicit drugs is a common problem, the term “addiction” is not limited to only illicit street drugs.

In fact, people can develop an addiction to seemingly harmless behaviors such as shopping, sex, eating, drinking, and even going to the gym. No particular behavior is exempt from leading us to addiction. There are even shows on TV such as “My Strange Addiction” which document some of the bizarre addictions people develop in their daily lives.

What is addiction?

Addiction is defined as the compulsive engagement in a particular action or behavior (such as ingesting a drug) regardless of detrimental consequences.  An addiction can significantly interfere with: an individual’s responsibilities (e.g. work and family) and/or general wellbeing.  The act of “addiction” is considered problematic because it describes a behavior that cannot be stopped even in the event of detrimental consequences such as deterioration of health, finances, or impairment in social and/or occupational functioning.

On the surface, some addictions like exercise addiction can seem like relatively normal or recreational behavior. However, what separates an addiction from a normal behavior is that in the event of an addiction, a person cannot stop the behavior. In the mind of the addict, the pleasure from a certain drug, activity, or behavior is so significant that it must be obtained at all costs.

Characteristics of an addiction

Below are some characteristics that commonly describe addiction. Addictions are often characterized by compulsions, difficulty to quit, and/or bringing pleasure to the addict. In many cases addictions create a reinforcement loop, making them extremely difficult to quit.

  • Compulsive: Addictions are characterized by irresistible urges or compulsions. The person is unable to stop engaging in a particular behavior or using a certain drug.
  • Difficult to quit: Most addictions are difficult for the individual to quit because the addictive behaviors bring the individual pleasure or escape from pain.  This creates a reinforcement cycle that can be very difficult to break.
  • Escape: In some cases, an addiction could be thought of as a behavior a person engages in to escape from emotional pain. For example, someone who is depressed may decide to use drugs to “escape” their depression.
  • Interference: Addictions tend to interfere with an individual’s life responsibilities. An addict may neglect their family, friends, social commitments, and occupational endeavors.
  • Pleasurable: The addiction usually brings the individual some sort of pleasure. It may do this by changing brain activity, neurotransmitters, and temporarily altering other physiological functioning.
  • Reinforcing: Usually a reinforcement loop is created for the person experiencing an addiction. This loop of reinforcement can be both positive or negative. For example, someone may use drugs simply because they like the high, while another person may use drugs to escape depressive feelings. In other cases the reinforcement for drug addiction may be a combination of both types of reinforcement.

Physical Addiction vs. Psychological Addiction

Some would argue that there are two main types of addiction, that often co-exist. There is physical addiction, or addiction to the physical sensations resulting from a particular activity or drug, and there is also psychological addiction, or addiction to the psychological changes from a particular activity or drug.

Physical addiction: This refers to addiction to biological changes that occur when engaging in a particular activity, or using a certain drug. In cases of a physical addiction, a person continuously engages in a particular behavior to alter their biological functioning. For example, a person may become addicted to running because they want to feel physically relaxed after the run or the “runner’s high.”

  • Arousal changes
  • Dependence
  • Nervous system changes
  • Tolerance

Psychological addiction: This refers to the psychological aspects of addiction such as cognitive and emotional components. A person may experience changes in thinking, reward processing, and become psychologically addicted to a fix of neurochemical changes. Psychological addiction makes it difficult for the individual to think about things other than their addiction and leads to increased “cravings” or urges to engage in the particular desired behavior.

  • Brain activity changes
  • Cognitive changes
  • Dependence
  • Neurotransmitter changes

In many cases there is overlap between the physical and psychological components of an addiction. Usually an addictive stimuli produces changes in both our physical functioning as well as our psychological processing. An addiction such as sex may increase our level of physical arousal, while simultaneously making a psychological impact by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain. There tends to be significant overlap in both physical and psychological aspects of addiction.

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