The word addiction is widely used yet often misunderstood. Some people recognise addiction as a real condition only when it has outward physical and often social signs; for example a drug addicted homeless person.

This view often misses out the vast number of people struggling with addiction that do not show these overtly apparent signs. People may be struggling with addiction themselves, but may not recognise this or seek help because it may not present in ways they recognise ‘addiction’.

So what is addiction?

How does addiction present itself? And how does it differ to common perceptions and misunderstandings?

Addiction can be summed up as ‘behaviours that adversely affect a persons life but are still routinely performed and not easily stopped, even when these actions are counter-productive or harmful’.

In other words if an area of your life has become disproportionate, if it is affecting other areas of your life or otherwise causing you harm, yet you do not feel able to stop it, it could be that you have an addiction.

Physical addiction (substance dependence)

Substances such as alcohol, nicotine and heroin can create temporary chemical alterations within the brain. These substances create a ‘physical’ reaction and using them over a period of time can create tolerance and dependancy. It was this physical dependance that was commonly believed to be the only form of addiction years ago.

This does not mean that all people who use potentially addictive substances will become addicted. May people can regularly enjoy alcohol for example, without it presenting a problem or becoming out of control within their lives. Each chemical has different potency and each individual will potentially have a different response to.

The DSM-IV, the manual commonly used in diagnosis of mental disorders, lists the following dependencies:

  • Alcohol
  • Opioid
  • Sedative, hypnotic or anxiolytic
  • Cocaine
  • Cannabis
  • Amphetamine
  • Hallucinogen
  • Inhalant
  • Polysubstance
  • Phencyclidine
  • Unknown or ‘other’
  • Nicotine

Behavioural addiction

Nowadays it is much more widely accepted that it is possible to become addicted to activities such as gambling, sex, pornography, shopping and fitness. It is possible under these terms to become addicted to just about anything.

This form of ‘addiction’ can be referred to as process addiction, non-substance addiction, or compulsive addictive behaviour.

Signs of addiction

Some signs of addiction include

  • The need for a ‘fix’ despite any negative connotations this may have
  • Habitually indulging in a behaviour that may be harmful to yourself or others
  • Needing more of the substance/activity to feel the same ‘high’, building tolerance
  • Increase in anger and irritability
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Paranoia
  • Weight changes
  • Sleep changes
  • Unpleasant feelings of withdrawal when the ‘fix’ is not available
  • Need for a ‘fix’ preoccupying thoughts

An addict may struggle with other areas of life; finances, work, relationships for example.

Tolerance and desensitisation

While physical tolerance can be quantified, it is also possible that someone with a behavioural addiction to become desensitised to their ‘fix’ and need more to satisfy the cravings.

For example a sex addict may start off by satisfying their need by masturbating or fantasising, this may not be enough after a while and that person may need to indulge in more risky sexual pursuits to get the same feeling of ‘high’. A gambling addict may risk more and more money, they may have to borrow or steal to feed the need for more, they may need to bet bigger sums of money to get the same rush.

Treatment for addiction

Your treatment will very much depend on what it is you are addicted to. There are specialist treatment centres and counsellors that specialise in different areas of addiction, and the good news is treatment can be very successful.

The road to recovery can be long and for many addicts, they may not even know how to face life without their addiction, but there is help, there is life the other side. Our real life stories are testament to life after addiction.

In UK we would suggest if you think you may have an addiction your first port of call should be your GP. As treatment and services vary across the country, your GP should be able to advise on individual options. However, you can also get help privately, please see our addiction counselling directory, or call one of the following helplines:

Alcoholics Anonymous 0845 769 7555

Narcotics Anonymous 0300 999 1212

Addictions UK 0845 4567 030

Further reading

Alcoholism | Drug addiction | Sex addiction | Behavioural addictions