Understanding Addiction

Created: 30 July 2013 | Written by Dr. Carlene Wilson

Addiction is a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance. An addiction can be a dependence on a habit-forming substance such as nicotine, alcohol, prescription pain killers, or caffeine, or an addiction to a behavior such as eating, shopping, gambling, exercising, playing video games, watching pornography, or even work.

An addiction can develop suddenly in response to a stressful change in your life, or it can creep up on you gradually. It is important to recognize the signs that you or someone you love is suffering from an addiction. Symptoms of physical dependence on alcohol or drugs include:

  • Increasing tolerance - you need more and more alcohol or drugs to achieve the same effect.
  • Withdrawal symptoms - as the effects of the alcohol or drug wear off, you experience anxiety, shakiness or trembling, sweating, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, depression, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, or headaches. 
  • You have to take a drink or more drugs to relieve your discomfort.

When any behavior negatively affects your quality of life, it is a sign that you are addicted. You may find yourself doing something, not because you want to, but because you feel you have to. You may lose interest in the things you used to enjoy, spend less time with close friends and family members, and experience difficulty in your relationships. You may isolate yourself from social situations in order to mask your addiction. Your addiction may affect your performance at school or work, and you may find yourself in financial difficulties because of uncontrolled spending or legal difficulties because of aggressive or irresponsible behavior. Addiction is often associated with depression, dependent behavior, and difficulty in formulating long-term personal goals because you are concentrating so much attention on short-term goals related to your addiction.

The causes of addiction are complex. Researchers have not been able to define one particular type of “addictive personality” that is prone to addiction, but several factors have been associated with addiction. Many addicts were physically abused as children. Children who experience emotional abuse, such as constant inconsistent praise and criticism from their parents, develop feelings of anger that are difficult to express and may result in some form of addiction later in life. Other factors linked to addiction are low self-esteem, exposure to traumatic experiences, and difficulty in family or other relationships.

Recent studies have shown that the causes of addiction are at least 50 percent genetic. It is important to be aware of your family history. If your parents or grandparents suffered from some kind of addiction, your chances of becoming addicted are much greater. Genes are related to addiction in several ways. Some genes affect the way in which the body metabolizes alcohol, and others affect the way the brain processes pleasure and stimulation. Some genetic markers are associated with mood, anxiety, and personality disorders, which are often present in people who seek comfort or stimulation from alcohol or drugs. Inherited personality traits can also create a family environment that makes children susceptible to addiction.

Genetic tendencies alone do not lead to addiction. Physical vulnerability, complex emotional and psychological issues, and social environment all contribute to an addiction. Successful treatment for addiction takes all of these influences into account. The twelve-step program, originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous and now applied to many types of addictions, guides addicts to recovery by helping them to understand themselves, take responsibility for their lives, and live by a new set of values.

Left untreated, addiction to alcohol or drugs can have fatal consequences including liver disease, drug overdoses, and accidents caused by impaired judgment. Any form of addiction is detrimental to your health and can launch you into a downward spiral of loss, despair, and deteriorating relationships with family members and friends.

If you think you or someone close to you is addicted, talk to your family physician about it. Most addictions cannot be overcome by willpower alone. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help you overcome your dependence, and refer you to counseling, therapy, or even residential treatment. There are also support groups and self-help programs for all types of addictions, including Alcoholics AnonymousModeration Management (for problem drinkers), Gamblers Anonymous, and Online Gamers Anonymous.

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