What Is Addiction? Some Basic Information

common alcohol withdrawal symptomsWhat is addiction? That’s a question many have and are somewhat shy about asking. Talk of addiction is everywhere these days. It makes sense because we have an addiction epidemic in our country, but still there is often a lot of confusion about what addiction really is. Here is some basic information.

Compulsive Use of Substances

Addiction involves the compulsive use of substances. It also indicates compulsive behavior in other addictions such as gambling, sex or shopping. With regard to substance use, however, an addict feels overwhelmingly compelled to use and keep using.

Compulsion is more than a desire to use. There are intense physiological and psychological cravings that become more important than any other drive. When one is using compulsively, use continues even when there is a desperate desire to stop, and even when using is problematic or dangerous. That is how compelling compulsion can be.

Continuing to Use Despite Negative Consequences

Very much a result of compulsion are the negative, often devastating consequences of using substances when addicted. Addiction is characterized by negative consequences in key areas of one’s life as well as continued use despite them. As addiction continues, more areas of life are affected such as:

  • physical and mental health
  • family relationships and roles
  • academic or work performance
  • social dealings
  • finances
  • spiritual health
  • legal standing

A Medical Condition

Addiction is considered a disease. It has been deemed a medical condition that has specific symptoms. It is a chronic and progressive illness that worsens over time if not in remission. It requires life long management much like other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease or epilepsy. It is commonly thought in the medical profession that the illness can go into remission and be managed, but not entirely cured.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) describes the illness this way:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.*

*ASAM, Definition of Addiction at http://www.asam.org/quality-practice/definition-of-addiction