Addiction: what is it?

If you have an addiction, you're not alone. It's estimated that 2 million people in the UK do. Read about 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 anything, such as:

  • 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.
  • Computers: as computer use has increased, so too has computer addiction. People may spend hours each day and night surfing the internet or playing games while neglecting other aspects of their lives.
  • Solvents: 'volatile substance abuse’ is when you inhale substances such as glue, aerosols, paint 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 in order to achieve a buzz. This is quickly followed by feelings of guilt, shame or despair.

Whatever a person is addicted to, they can't control how they use it, and they may become dependent on it to get through daily life.

There are many 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’.

The strain of managing an addiction can seriously damage a person’s work 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 that addiction is genetic, but environmental factors, such as being brought up by someone with an addiction, 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.

Whatever the addiction, there are many ways you can seek help, including seeing your GP for advice, or contacting one of the charitable organisations set up to help people with addictions. Our online directories will also help you find specific 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 Treating addiction Q&A.

Page last reviewed: 18/04/2013

Next review due: 18/04/2015

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