Addiction is a craving to use a substance (such as alcohol), or to do something (such as gambling). It’s about wanting to feel good, or not feel bad, to the point that you are not in control.
Addiction can be physical or psychological.
Physical addiction is when your body depends on a particular substance or behaviour. The body becomes more tolerant of the substance or behaviour over time, so you have to take (or do) more and more to feel the same effects. If you try to give up, you feel symptoms of withdrawal.
Psychological addiction is when you have an emotional or psychological desire for a substance or behaviour. If you try to give up, you may feel depressed, anxious and unable to sleep or concentrate.
At its worst, addiction leads people to do things they would normally never do, just to access the drug (or to repeat the behaviour). They may lie, cheat or steal. They may even physically harm someone who gets in their way.
Types of addiction
The thing with addiction is that it can be about anything.
People talk about addiction in relation to drugs, alcohol, smoking and inhalation (of glue, aerosol, paint, lighter fuel, etc.). But you can also be addicted to compulsive behaviours, including work, gambling, exercise, shopping, sex, eating, internet chatting and online games.
As an example, some people rack up huge debt because they experience oniomania ‒ compulsive shopping. Oniomania is usually a response to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, loneliness or anger. When these feelings grow, so does the urge to buy.
Other types of compulsive behaviour are self-harm (such as cutting yourself) and risk taking (such as riding on the top of trains).
Some addictions affect your physical health, some affect your mental health, and some affect everything in your life. If you have an addiction or think you may have one, contact a health professional who can help you work out what support will assist you best.
How addiction is different from substance misuse
When someone starts to use drugs, it is called substance use. People who regularly use a drug can become addicted to, or dependent on it. They may start to feel that they need to use the drug to go about their normal activities like working, studying and socialising, or just to get through the day. In other words, substance misuse can lead to addiction.
People can become addicted to all sorts of substances ‒ alcohol, prescription medication, illegal drugs, cigarettes, even glue. But some substances are more addictive than others, and the physical, mental and social impacts of addiction can vary significantly from person to person and from substance to substance.
How addiction can happen
Addiction may happen for many reasons.
For one, the use of a substance may make you feel great, so you want to use it again. This ‘high’ can become a habit that is very hard to stop.
Giving up a substance that makes you feel great can therefore be very hard. Rather than having all the good feelings, you may have bad ones ‒ and both physical withdrawal and psychological withdrawal can be exhausting, painful and emotional.
To put it another way, one reason for addiction is that it can become extremely difficult to not use the substance or not continue the behaviour.
Other possible factors that can increase the risk of addiction are:
- genes ‒ you may be biologically prone to addiction
- environmental factors, such as being brought up by someone with an addiction
- a desire to block out difficult issues
- a desire to achieve peak physical or mental performance
- trauma or stress
- pressure at work
- relationship breakdown
- socioeconomic, ethnic or racial marginalisation.
In summary, addiction can happen when there is physical or emotional pain, or a need to cope with particular circumstances.
And it can happen at any stage of life, and to anyone from any population group.
If you think you have an addiction, then part of overcoming it is understanding why you became addicted. What biological, social and mental factors have contributed to this?
What addiction looks like
Plenty of red flags indicate an addiction may be developing. Here are some of the more common signs:
- You think you need the substance or behaviour to forget your problems, to cope with your life, or to relax.
- You withdraw from family and friends.
- You don’t care about your work or schoolwork, and your performance has dipped (possibly a lot).
- You are not interested in your usual interests and hobbies.
- You are stealing or selling things to pay for your addiction.
- You have tried to quit but you can’t.
- You felt shaky or sick when you tried to quit.
- You feel anxious, angry or depressed most of the time.
- You are having trouble sleeping, or can’t stop sleeping.
- You are eating differently from your usual eating patterns.
- You have gained or lost a fair amount of weight.
- You have become unreliable, often turning up late or not at all.
- You have started high-risk behaviour, such as having unprotected casual sex, drink driving, using dirty needles, being aggressive towards your loved ones, leaving home or quitting your job.
- You are arguing a lot with family, friends or work colleagues.
- You are keeping secrets from the people who care about you.
- You have new friends who have the same addiction, or who support your addiction (such as suppliers of drugs).
What addiction does to you
Addiction can affect your life in a number of ways.
It can have short-term impacts, such as problems with:
- your physical health ‒ nausea, aches and pains, sleep problems, weight gain or loss, infections, accidents, illness or chronic disease
- your mental health ‒ depression, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis
- your personal relationships
- study, work and money
- your behaviour ‒ criminal behaviour, anti-social behaviour, isolation.
And, from these problems, addiction can start to have long-term impacts on your physical, mental, social and financial health. It can even lead to suicide or accidental death.
Remember, not all alcohol and other drug use is harmful. And not all compulsive behaviour is harmful. But once you become addicted to a substance (whether legal or illegal) or a behaviour, the risk of harms to you and possibly to others increases.
Getting help for addiction
Accepting that you have an addiction is hard. Asking for help can be hard too.
If you think you have an addiction, you may want to tell someone you trust. You may feel comfortable talking to a family member, friend, teacher, religious leader or work colleague. If you are not ready for advice, let them know that you just want to unload.
Also at the start of facing your addiction, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or another health professional.
If you want to research other support options, check out the ReachOut NextStep tool. You will find help in the form of counselling, medication, rehabilitation centres, self-help programs and support networks.
You may also want to look over the Australian Drug Information Network (ADIN) directory of online services. The directory will give you reliable information on alcohol, other drugs and mental health, plus links to treatment services.
To speak to someone anonymously about any kind of addiction, you can use any of the national and state-based support services available on the Alcohol and Drug Foundation website.
Where to get help