Addiction can best be described as dependence on a substance or behaviour which can be pleasurable, but becomes compulsive to the extent that it interferes with normal life. Common addictions arise from substance dependence, for example alcohol, illegal or prescription drugs, or nicotine. Alternatively they can arise from behaviours such as compulsive shopping or gambling.
Addiction is often misunderstood. The enjoyment of a particular behaviour or substance, or experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when the substance or behaviour ceases, is not necessarily considered addiction in itself. In many cases, this can be seen as a habit rather than an addiction. The difference being that with a habit an individual has control of the choices they make and does not experience the same degree of overriding compulsion regardless of the consequence to themselves and their loved ones.
Where behaviour becomes addictive, the individual is unable to control their compulsion to participate in the behaviour, or substance use, and they may become dependent on that substance or behaviour to function in normal life. Another indicator of addictive behaviour is that an individual continues to engage in substance use or a particular behaviour even though it is harmful to them and may damage their health, finances, home and social life, and work life. Addicted people often experience tolerance issues, meaning that they need bigger or more regular amounts of the substance or behaviour to achieve the same pleasurable effect, or avoid unpleasant feelings of withdrawal. The addicted person is unable to stop the addictive behaviour, and may be ‘in denial’ or even unaware of the harm it is doing to them.
There are many reasons why people become addicted, or habits turn into addictions. Most behaviours or substances have a positive effect on the way you feel. These feelings may be psychological, or based on real chemical changes to your body. These positive feelings can create a strong urge to repeat the experience. For example, the thrill of winning a bet can lead you to place further bets in the hope of repeating the pleasurable experience of winning. In some people this urge becomes overpowering to the extent that they will continue with the behaviour even if it harms them and those they love.