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The Basics of Understanding Addiction

Kayla Gill
 February 5th, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

No one chooses to be addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. So, what happens? Where does drinking cross the line into an alcohol problem? When does drug use grow from something that makes you feel good to something that takes over your life because if you don’t have it you feel miserable?

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is complex. It is widely accepted that addiction is a disease, involving compulsive use regardless of negative consequences.

The “short” definition of addiction by The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM):

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by an inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)

Although we’re still exploring the many biological, psychological, and social factors behind how addiction happens, we know for certain drugs, alcohol, and other behaviors, like gambling, gaming, and pornography (typically called “process addictions”), can cause problems in a person’s life and in the lives of those close to that person—and we know addiction is treatable.

Symptoms of Addiction

The drug of choice or behavior of choice will have varying symptoms, but most addictions have the following symptoms. Typically, the more of these symptoms, the more severe the addiction is.

  • Withdrawal symptoms upon stopping
  • Tolerance (you need more of the drug or behavior to get the same effect)
  • Time and energy focused on the behavior and getting next “fix,” especially at the expense of activities once enjoyed
  • Craving
  • Problems related to use:
    • Neglected responsibilities at school, work or home
    • Relationship conflict
    • Physical health problems
    • Mental health issues
  • Lack of control and inability to stop (repeated attempts to quit)

How Common Is Addiction?

Often termed “substance use disorder” (SUD) or “alcohol use disorder” (AUD), addiction affects a number of people worldwide. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2019, estimates that in 2017, about 35 million people were suffering from a drug use disorder.

More than 35 million people worldwide are suffering from a drug use disorder.

Is Addiction a Disease?

While the disease aspect is still controversial in some circles, in the medical and scientific communities, addiction is considered a disease, a chronic brain disorder.

How Is Addiction Treated?

A spectrum of treatment options exist to help people struggling with drugs and alcohol or process addictions.

Typically addiction is treated through a combination of psychotherapies, support groups, and sometimes medicine. Some people have found recovery simply by attending support groups regularly. Others have found individual counseling coupled with support group attendance

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