For years, the term 'addiction' referred only to the compulsive use of drugs including alcohol and narcotics. Nowadays, the understanding of addiction has grown, and it now covers behaviors (e.g., gambling), substances, and even necessary everyday activities such as eating and exercising.
The main hallmark of addiction is that the person takes pleasure in the behavior and engages in it excessively to cope with life. Once a person becomes addicted, the behavior causes more harm than good in a person's life.
5 common questions about addiction
1. What substances are addictive?
Even though substance addictions seem straightforward, the question of which substances are truly addictive is still a matter of great debate. However, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), the majority of psychoactive substances are potentially addictive. These substances include psychoactive medications.
2. Are behavioral addictions real?
There is still a lot of controversy regarding around whether behavioral addictions are real addictions. Research on the matter is still ongoing. For many years, mental care professionals have recognized that addiction to gambling as an impulse control disorder. The DSM now categorizes it as Gambling Disorder. Internet Porn addiction, a subset of sex addiction, however is not yet an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders but can still lead to serious negative consequences.
3. Can using a substance (or a certain behavior) once cause addiction?
Addiction is progressive, so a person is not likely to become addicted after using it (or behaving a certain way, in the case of behavioral addictions) only once. A mental health problem may, however, occur. In the case of substances, an overdose can lead to death or other severe complications even after using a substance once.
4. Is complete abstinence the only solution for addiction?
Some schools of thought insist on complete abstinence as a way to deal with addiction. Many others learn to manage addictive behaviors like alcohol use, sex, shopping, and eating. It's wise to work with your doctor and therapist to decide the best approach for you because it depends on many factors.
5. If I find out someone uses a drug, does it mean they're addicted?
Substance use does not necessarily mean that someone is addicted. Still, drug use poses many risks to your health and relationships even in the absence of addiction. So when a parent discovers that their child has used a drug, they shouldn't automatically conclude that the child is addicted. Online addictions such as gambling or excessive consumption of online pornography (or even social media use) will not cause the direct bodily harm as substance abuse. They will still impact the addict's life in a negative way. A behavior becomes an addiction if the user can't be happy or live a normal live without using his or her 'drug'.
Differentiating addiction from other problematic behaviors
Symptoms of addiction vary from one person to another, but all addiction behaviors share two things in common.
1. They are maladaptive
Addictive behaviors cause problems for a person and the people around them. Rather than solve someone's problems or improve one's situation, these behaviors impede their ability to find solutions.
For instance, a gambler may want to improve their financial situation, but their gambling only worsens their financial problems. A heavy drinker's goal might be to uplift their mood, but their alcohol use may cause depression or make it worse. A sex addict who desires intimacy may focus on sexual acts that alienate their partner.
It's a downward spiral: in order to derive the same kind of pleasure or 'kick' from their addiction, the user will have to constantly up the ante - in the case of an online pornography addiction, for example, the addict is getting used to the porn they browse. In order to experience the same excitement, they drift off into more extreme kinds of pornography and fetishes.
2. They are persistent
A person who is addicted continues engaging in the behaviors even when they lead to trouble. So while an occasional weekend of indulgence may lead to many problems, it's not necessarily an addiction. Only when the behavior becomes frequent does it point to addiction.
Addiction often disguises itself as something else
Pop media continues to portray an addict as an unhappy, hopeless person that has completely ruined their life. In reality, many people who suffer from one addiction or another appear to be happily holding their life together. Addiction has a way of ingraining itself into your lifestyle to the extent that it is hard to notice withdrawal symptoms.
If you've been using an addictive substance or engaging in addictive behavior for a long time, stopping suddenly or reduce its use drastically leads to a collection of symptoms called withdrawal symptoms. The duration and intensity of these symptoms vary widely depending on the drug or behavior and your unique biological makeup.
The physical symptoms may last a few days to a week, whereas psychological symptoms such as dysphoria and depression may last for weeks.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the withdrawal symptoms in most cases can easily subside following treatment with the appropriate medications to minimize and eliminate the discomfort. It is important to note that treating withdrawal symptoms does not cure the patient of their addiction.
Even when you recognize the symptoms, you can easily mistake them for signs of aging, effects of overworking, or just not being a morning person. A person can go for years without realizing just how dependent they are addicted to something.
The secrecy that surrounds illicit addictions can hold a certain appeal for the addict. They may see themselves as independent and free-willed, choosing to blame the rest of society for being closed-minded. But in reality, the compulsive nature of addiction limits a person's individuality and freedom, which is further restricted if they serve prison time for engaging in illegal addictions.
Addicts find pleasure only in engaging in the addictive behavior and alleviating their withdrawal symptoms. They cannot enjoy the full range of experiences that a typical healthy person finds pleasurable. An addict may at some point realize that they have wasted their life and missed out on fun and meaningful experiences outside their addiction. Such a realization often helps recovering addicts overcome their addiction.
Addiction hurts the addicted person and the people around them
The main problem with addiction is that the addict doesn't recognize the harm that their behavior causes. They live in denial. Blind to the destructive aspects of their addiction, addicts fail to see how their health, finances, and relationships suffer. They often blame other people or external circumstances for the difficulties in their life.
When a person uses their addiction to cope with their problems, it becomes difficult for them to see the harm that the maladaptive behavior causes. Addiction results in problems both directly (e.g., gambling addiction leads to financial problems) and indirectly (e.g., relationships often suffer because of porn addiction).
Some addicts are fully aware of their addiction and the problems it causes for them and others, but they choose to continue engaging in it anyway. One reason for this is the addict's belief that they can't cope with life without the addiction. Another reason is the addict may be using the addiction to avoid dealing with other issues, such as a history of abuse.
Only a crisis may make an addict recognize the harm of addiction. The crisis may occur when the person goes into withdrawal after the addictive substance or behavior becomes inaccessible, and they cannot cope. A severe consequence of the addiction, such as job loss, an ended relationship, or a serious illness, may also lead to a crisis.
What to do if you think you're addicted
It is common to go through a period of using an addictive substance or engaging in addictive behavior without realizing that you're addicted. This period is referred to as the pre-contemplation stage. If you begin to believe that you might have an addiction, it is likely that you are in the contemplation stage.
At this point, it is good to research widely on the substance and behavioral addiction you're engaging in. Honestly reflect on whether you exhibit the signs and symptoms of the addiction.
The signs and symptoms of different addictions vary, but they have some important things in common.
- You're unable to control when and the extent to which you use the substance or engage in the behavior.
- You're preoccupied with the anticipation of the next time you're going to use the substance or engage in the behavior.
- It interferes with important aspects of your life like your job, health, and relationships.
- It causes you to lose interest in other pleasurable activities.
Many people take steps to change upon realizing that they may be addicted. For some, these changes come easily. For many others, it's a huge and sometimes lifelong challenge. Withdrawal symptoms make it difficult. Even in the case of behavioral addictions, quitting can be quite unpleasant because uncomfortable feelings that the behavior soothed are not left unattended.
If you suffer withdrawal symptoms from attempting to quit alcohol, opioids, and narcotics, seek immediate medical help. Abrupt discontinuation of some drugs increases the risk of overdose, life-threatening health complications, and mental health problems. In these cases, a qualified healthcare professional should supervise the cessation.
Your chances of successfully preventing or overcoming addiction greatly improve if you seek the guidance of healthcare professionals that specialize in addiction.
Living with Addiction
Some people are unwilling to abstain from their addiction, or they have failed after multiple attempts. The most suitable solution for these people is adopting harm reduction goals and using self-help tools to manage their addiction.
If you're such a person, always remember that you need not fight your addiction alone. Educate yourself and enlist all the help you can to reduce the negative impact the addiction has on you and the people around you.
Scary as it may appear, having an addiction professional assess and diagnose you is a wise step to take. If that doesn't interest you, you can join a self-help group and link with others who share your struggle. Research widely on your addiction and solutions that others have found successful.
A final word
The term addiction still carries stigma. Many people associate it with worthlessness and failure. Consequently, people who suffer from addiction fear to seek help because they feel ashamed.
Thankfully, attitudes towards addiction are changing, and this allows more people to be open about their struggle with addiction and seek help. Meanwhile, whether you suffer from addiction or know someone who does, continue educating yourself.