What is an addiction? - Drug Addiction

This may sound like an obvious question but how many people are able to define an ‘addiction?’ The reason we ask this is because it is a word that is used many times in conversation, often without a full understanding of what it actually means.

How many times do you hear someone say that they are addicted to so and so when what they really mean is that that they have a particular liking and enjoyment of something?

An addiction can be defined as:

“A dependence on a substance or behaviour which affects physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing”.

(Source: www.beatingaddictions.co.uk)

This is, in other words, a form of behaviour which is both compulsive and habit forming.

Addiction or sociable habit?

The difference between an addiction and a liking for something is this: the removal of the source of this compulsive behaviour will result in cravings and withdrawal symptoms in someone with an addiction but none in a person who merely enjoys something.

Let’s say you decide to stop having your morning latte on the way to work. If this is something you do in moderation as in only having a single cup on the way to work then this shouldn’t cause you too much hardship. It might even save you money in the long run!

Whereas someone who is addicted to caffeine will experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and mood swings. They will have cravings for coffee and feel as if they can’t do without their caffeine ‘fix’.

It is easy to get into a regular habit, especially if you are in an environment where others indulge in the same behaviour.

So to return to our coffee example: if you work in a city centre office where others drink coffee or visit coffee shops on a regular basis then it can be hard to resist. Particularly if you have just started work in a new office and are looking to ‘fit in’. If that office has a ‘coffee culture’ then it is very easy to fall into that habit with everyone else.

Coffee and caffeine in general is discussed in more detail within our types of addictions section.

The issue is when does a habit become an addiction? Something which you do on a social basis such as enjoying a few drinks with friends can be undertaken without you becoming addicted. In fact most people manage to do this or other activities without becoming addicted. In this sense they are in control of what they do and are able to stop any time they so wish.

But there are people who become addicted, sometimes from the first time they try something, e.g. a cigarette. However, most addictions develop over a period of time with the person requiring an ever increasing ‘dose’ just to satisfy their cravings.

A classic example of this is nicotine addiction. Nicotine is a chemical found in tobacco which gives you that instant ‘high’ when you smoke a cigarette. People find that it relaxes them or makes them feel confident and alert but need a cigarette to experience these feelings. Over time, they require more and more cigarettes to experience these effects.

Find out more about nicotine addiction in our smoking subsection (types of addictions section).


What happens with an addiction is that it consumes a person to the exclusion of everything else. For example, someone who is addicted to alcohol will feel as if they must have a drink, no matter what anyone else says or does. In this sense an addiction is a selfish form of behaviour as it is pursued without any thought given to anyone else.

This form of behaviour can be seen in drug addicts who become desperate for their ‘fix’ to the extent that they will commit crime to pay for their habit. The cravings and overwhelming need for their drug overrides every other consideration. In their eyes, the means justifies the ends as long as they satisfy their cravings.

This is why it is difficult for drug addicts to ‘kick’ their habit: they not only have to realise that they have a problem but are willing to do something about it. If something makes you feel good then you are unlikely to give it up even though it is damaging your health.

Detoxification and others forms of treatment do work but they are not an overnight solution and it takes a great deal of persistence and support to overcome the addiction.

This is discussed further in our treating a drug addiction section.  

Triggers for addiction

But what are the triggers for an addiction? These include desire, peer group pressure or the type of personality which succumbs to temptation all too easily. There are also people who use a particular substance as a means of coping with the world around them, for example, alcohol as a means of boosting their confidence and self-esteem.

Plus there are also people who appear to have a genetic tendency to addiction.

We have to accept that there are people who are prone to developing an addiction than others. This doesn’t mean that they are a ‘bad’ person or that this is a sign of a weakness in their character; rather it is recognition that they can become hooked on a particular substance and need help and support to treat their addiction.

Physical and mental addiction

Drug addiction comes in two forms: physical and mental. A physical dependence means that your body has been altered by your addiction to a substance and needs this to function as normal. If the substance is stopped or temporarily withheld then cravings and withdrawal symptoms will occur. 

Mental dependence can encompass a whole range of addictions which include drugs, alcohol, smoking and caffeine. It is a state in which a person’s mental health is affected if they are denied access to a substance or mode of behaviour. Anxiety, mood swings and irritability are just a few of the psychological effects of addiction.

What this means is that a person has given over control of their life to their addiction. For them, having constant access to the things which has caused their addiction, e.g. drugs, is vital and occupies their every waking moment. Their lives are dictated by their addiction and no-one or nothing else matters to them.

Drug addiction is a complex state of affairs and research is still being undertaken into the causes and possible treatments for this condition.


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