Addiction has long been understood to mean an uncontrollable habit of using alcohol or other drugs. Because of the physical effects of
these substances on the body, and particularly the brain, people have often thought that “real” addictions only happen when people
regularly use these substances in large amounts.
More recently, we have come to realize that people can also develop addictions to behaviors, such as gambling, and even quite
ordinary and necessary activities such as exercise and eating. What these activities have in common is that the person doing them
finds them pleasurable in some way.
There is some controversy about which of the “behavioral” addictions constitute scientifically validated “true” addictions, with both
professionals and the public failing to reach an agreement. More research is needed to clarify this issue.
So If You Can Be Addicted to Anything, What Makes it an Addiction?
Although the precise symptoms vary from one addiction to another, in clarifying what is an addiction, there are two aspects that all
addictions have in common.
Firstly, the addictive behavior is maladaptive or counter-productive to the individual. So instead of helping the person adapt to
situations or overcome problems, it tends to undermine these abilities.
For example, a gambler might wish he had more money –- yet gambling is more likely to drain his financial resources. A heavy
drinker might want to cheer herself up –- yet alcohol use contributes to the development of her depression. A sex addict may crave
intimacy –- yet the focus on sexual acts may prevent real closeness from developing.
Secondly, the behavior is persistent. When someone is addicted, they will continue to engage in the addictive behavior, despite it
causing them trouble.
So an occasional weekend of self-indulgence is not addiction, although it may cause different kinds of problems. Addiction involves
more frequent engagement in the behavior.
But If You Still Enjoy It, It Can’t Be an Addiction, Right?
Wrong. Because the media, in particular, have portrayed addicts as hopeless, unhappy people whose lives are falling apart, many
people with addictions do not believe they are addicted as long as they are enjoying themselves, and they are holding their lives
Often people’s addictions become ingrained in their lifestyle, to the point where they never or rarely feel withdrawal symptoms. Or
they may not recognize their withdrawal symptoms for what they are, putting them down to aging, working too hard, or just to not
liking mornings. People can go for years without realizing how dependent they are on their addiction.
People with illicit addictions may enjoy the secretive nature of their behavior. They may blame society for its narrow-mindedness,
choosing to see themselves as free-willed and independent individuals. In reality, addictions tend to limit people’s individuality and
reedom as they become more restricted in their behaviors. Imprisonment for engaging in an illegal addiction restricts their
freedom even more.
When people are addicted, their enjoyment often becomes focused on carrying out the addictive behavior and relieving withdrawal,
rather than the full range of experiences which form the person’s full potential for happiness. At some point, the addicted person may
realize that life has passed them by, and that they have missed out on enjoying much other than the addiction. This often happens
when people overcome addiction.
What’s the Problem If It isn’t Doing Any Harm?
Addictions are harmful both to the person with the addiction, and to the people around them.
The biggest problem is the addicted person’s failure to recognize the harm their addiction is doing. They may be in denial about
the negative aspects of their addiction, choosing to ignore the effects on their health, life patterns and relationships. Or they may
blame outside circumstances or other people in their lives for their difficulties.
The harm caused by addiction is particularly difficult to recognize when the addiction is the person’s main way of coping with the
other problems they have. Sometimes other problems are directly related to the addiction, for example, health problems, and
sometimes they are indirectly related to the addiction, for example, relationship problems.
Some people who get addicted to substances or activities are very aware of their addictions, and even the harms caused by the
addiction, but keep doing the addictive behavior anyway. This can be because they don’t feel they can cope without the addiction,
because they are avoiding dealing with some other issue that the addiction distracts them from (such as being abused as a child),
or because they do not know how to enjoy life any other way.
The harm of addiction may only be recognized when the addicted person goes through a crisis. This can happen when the addictive
substance or behavior is taken away completely, and the person goes into withdrawal and cannot cope. Or it can occur as a
consequence of the addiction, such as a serious illness, a partner leaving, or loss of a job.
Help is available.
What is Addiction?
A Broad Definition of Addiction
By Elizabeth Hartney, About.com Guide