What is Addiction?

Most medical organizations in the world, including the World Health Organization, define addiction as a complex medical disorder that damages certain parts of the brain. Addiction, like other medical disorders, has biological, psychological and social manifestations.

Biological signs: Addiction involves damage to the reward, motivation, memory and learning pathways of the brain. It is associated with the development of tolerance – that is, the need for increasingly higher doses or more of the behavior in order to achieve the same effect – and with withdrawal symptoms upon any attempt to reduce or eliminate the substance or behavior.

Psychological signs: Addiction is characterized by a compulsive preoccupation with the addictive substance or behavior, difficulty with impulse control, constant cravings, and resistance to recognizing the harm caused by the addictive activity.

Social signs: Addiction impairs performance in various spheres of life, including in the familial, social, professional and academic spheres. The addictive behavior usually persists despite considerable damage to one’s personal relationships and ability to function.

What types of addiction exist?

Addiction is characterized by the pathological pursuit of certain substances, including nicotine, alcohol, drugs and prescription medications. In recent years, however, the medical community has come to recognize that addiction to certain behaviors can be just as serious and severe as addiction to drugs and alcohol. The research literature indicates a growing recognition that these two types of addiction – behavioral and substance – have much in common, in that they share similar biological, psychological and social features as well as risk factors. Addictive behaviors include those that are officially recognized, such as gambling and video game addictions, and those that have yet to be recognized, such as sex addiction. Most behavioral addictions still lack clear diagnosis criteria, and thus tend to get categorized under “impulse control disorders” during medical diagnosis.  

Why is addiction treated as a chronic condition?

Chronic medical disorders are conditions that persist over time. Like other chronic disorders, addiction is characterized by periods of remission (discontinuation of the addictive activity), and periods of relapse (return to the addictive activity). Addiction inflicts great suffering on the addict and on his or her environment. Without treatment, addiction tends to worsen, and to significantly increase physical and mental morbidity, as well as risk of premature death.  

Important to note:

Addiction is a treatable medical condition. Generally, a person’s early experiences with an addictive substance or behavior are the result of a deliberate, conscious choice to try the substance or activity. However, after prolonged and intensive engagement, the ability to control this behavior and make rational decisions becomes significantly impaired. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that, with the help of trained professionals and the support of family and friends, addiction can be effectively prevented, treated and managed, which can prevent further deterioration and irreversible damage. Because addiction is a chronic condition, in many cases those who suffer from it need sustained follow up and treatment over the course of several years.

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