Addiction is a craving for or dependence on a substance (such as alcohol), or action (such as gambling). It's about wanting to feel good, or not feel bad. Addiction can be physical or psychological, and is characterised by not having full control over your actions.
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 effects. If you try to give up, your body may react with symptoms of withdrawal.
Psychological addiction is when you have an emotional or psychological desire for a substance or behaviour. Psychological addiction can also be triggered by your surroundings. If you try to give up, you may feel depressed, anxious and unable to sleep or concentrate.
At its worst, addiction may lead to behaviour that is out of character, just to access the drug (or to repeat the behaviour). Someone experiencing addiction may lie, cheat or steal, or 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 (for example of glue, aerosol, paint or lighter fuel). 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 oneself) and risk taking (such as riding on the top of trains).
Addictions affect your physical and mental health. Addiction often affects all areas of a person's life and, as dependency grows, satisfying cravings can become more important than other activities. So, whatever the addiction, it needs immediate professional help.
How addiction is different from substance abuse
When someone starts to use drugs, it is called substance abuse. That person is considered to be addicted to a drug when they feel they must have the drug, whether they want it or not.
In other words, substance abuse can lead to addiction.
People can be addicted to all sorts of substances ‒ alcohol, prescription medication, illegal drugs, cigarettes, even glue. But some substances are more addictive than others. A user may become addicted after using methamphetamine or heroin just a handful of times.
There is no safe level of drug use, and all substance abuse can lead to dependency.
How addiction can happen
Addiction is multifaceted and can develop as a result of many factors. For one, the use of a substance may make you feel great, so you want to use it again. The first time you use a drug is often the strongest experience. The psychological, social and physical elements of addiction take longer to develop.
Giving up an addiction can be very difficult. Physical withdrawal and psychological withdrawal can be exhausting, painful and emotional.
These factors make it extremely difficult not to use the substance on which you have become physically and psychologically dependent.
Other possible factors that 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 relax
- 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.
Addiction 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? Discussing your addiction with your health professional may be beneficial to understanding these factors.
What addiction looks like
Plenty of red flags indicate an addiction. 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 feel shaky or sick when you try 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 have a huge negative impact on your life, and the lives of the people around you.
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.
Addiction to a substance (whether legal or illegal) or a behaviour, will almost certainly cause harm to you and possibly to others.
Getting help for addiction
Accepting that you have an addiction can be difficult, as can be seeking help for it.
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.
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, research, statistics, guidelines, policies, campaigns and events.
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 Australian Drug Foundation website.
Where to get help