Addiction: what is it?

If you have an addiction, you're not alone. According to the charity Action on Addiction, one in three of us are addicted to something. Read about the types and causes of addiction, and what treatments are available.

Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.

Addiction is most commonly associated with gambling, drugs, alcohol and nicotine, but it's possible to be addicted to just about anything, including:

  • work – workaholics are obsessed with their work to the extent that they suffer physical exhaustion. If your relationship, family and social life are suffering and you never take holidays, you may be a work addict.
  • internet – as computer and mobile phone use has increased, so too have computer and internet addictions. People may spend hours each day and night surfing the internet or gaming while neglecting other aspects of their lives.
  • solvents – volatile substance abuse is when you inhale substances such as glue, aerosols, petrol or lighter fuel to give you a feeling of intoxication. Solvent abuse can be fatal.
  • shopping – shopping becomes an addiction when you buy things you don't need or want to achieve a buzz. This is quickly followed by feelings of guilt, shame or despair.

What causes addictions?

There are lots of reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to use the substances again.

Gambling may result in a similar mental "high" after a win, followed by a strong urge to try again and recreate that feeling. This can develop into a habit that becomes very hard to stop.

Being addicted to something means that not having it causes withdrawal symptoms, or a "come down". Because this can be unpleasant, it's easier to carry on having or doing what you crave, and so the cycle continues.

Often, an addiction gets out of control because you need more and more to satisfy a craving and achieve the "high".

How addictions can affect you

The strain of managing an addiction can seriously damage your work life and relationships. In the case of substance abuse (for example, drugs and alcohol), an addiction can have serious psychological and physical effects.

Some studies suggest addiction is genetic, but environmental factors, such as being around other people with addictions, are also thought to increase the risk.

An addiction can be a way of blocking out difficult issues. Unemployment and poverty can trigger addiction, along with stress and emotional or professional pressure.

Getting help for addictions

Addiction is a treatable condition. Whatever the addiction, there are lots of ways you can seek help. You could see your GP for advice or contact an organisation that specialises in helping people with addictions. 

Our online directories can also help you find addiction treatment services in your area:

To speak to someone anonymously about any kind of addiction, you can also call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.

To find out more about the treatment, support and advice available for people dealing with addiction, read the Treating addiction Q&A.

Page last reviewed: 18/04/2015

Next review due: 18/04/2017

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