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Addiction: Types, symptoms, causes, and treatments

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman

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What is addiction?

Addiction is a disease in which you repeatedly abuse a substance or engage in a behavior despite the harm it causes to yourself and others.

If you struggle with addiction, you may have both a physical and psychological attachment to a substance or behavior. That means both your mind and body depend on the addictive behavior or substance to function. You can experience withdrawal symptoms from both physical and psychological addictions.

Addiction vs. substance abuse

The term “addiction” often brings drug and alcohol abuse to mind, but substance abuse and addiction aren’t the same. A person can abuse a substance or engage in harmful behavior without developing an addiction.

In addition, not all addictions involve drugs or alcohol. People can also be addicted to behaviors or activities, such as gambling, shopping, sex, or playing video games.

Substance abuse can certainly lead to addiction, which is why preventing substance abuse is important. You may not be aware that you’re at high risk for addiction until after you’ve started abusing drugs or alcohol.

Types of addiction

Common substance addictions include:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine/tobacco
  • Prescription drugs (such as Oxycontin, Xanax, Valium, or Ritalin)
  • Marijuana/THC
  • Illegal drugs (such as heroin, cocaine, or meth)
  • Aerosols and inhalants (like solvents, spray paint, or whip-its)

Common behavioral addictions include:

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Sex
  • Playing video games
  • Working
  • Eating

Symptoms of addiction

Frequent or increased addiction behaviors
If you’re using substances or engaging in harmful behaviors with increasing frequency, it may be an early sign of a developing addiction. Having a drink with friends, for example, isn’t a sign of addiction—but if you have a drink every night or feel unable to go without a drink while you’re out, that may point toward a growing problem.

Another sign of possible addiction is when your behaviors increase in intensity. For example, you may start feeling like you need two drinks every night instead of just one. This may be a sign that your physical tolerance is adjusting—that you require more of a substance or harmful behavior to achieve previous highs or levels of relaxation. It may also indicate that you’re forming a psychological attachment to the substance or behavior, feeling like you need more just to get by.

Disregard for risks
Addiction poses clear risks to both the affected person and their loved ones. It can jeopardize a person’s physical and mental health, job and finances, relationships, home, safety, and legal freedoms.

No matter how clear these threats are, people with addiction typically downplay or outright dismiss them. Instead of behaving rationally to avoid these dangers, they prioritize their addiction.

Loss of control
Addiction causes you to struggle with a seemingly uncontrollable urge to use your substance of choice or engage in your identified problem behavior. This loss of control is typically characterized by irrational or dangerous behavior. For example, if you have alcoholism you may start drinking during the workday, even though it puts you at risk for getting fired.

Increased secrecy and isolation
In many communities, addiction is slowly losing its stigma and is being treated more as a disease and a public health crisis, instead of as criminal behavior. There’s still a long way to go, though. Many people still feel deep shame over their addiction, as well as fear of punishment or imprisonment, which pushes them toward greater secrecy and isolation.

Declining physical health
Our bodies pay the price of addiction. Alcohol and drugs have predictable physical effects, but even addictions that don’t involve substance abuse can affect the body. Many people, regardless of their addiction, suffer from insomnia or unhealthy weight fluctuations. They can also experience memory loss.

Declining mental health
Other mental health disorders often accompany addiction. By some estimates, a third of people with clinical depression struggle with a drinking problem. Anxiety is also common among people who struggle with addiction.

The cause-and-effect relationship of addiction and other mental health disorders differs from person to person. For example, someone who suffers from anxiety may try to self-medicate with drugs, leading to dependence. Conversely, a person with a drug addiction may develop worsening fear and anxiety from trying to hide their disease.

Inability to quit on your own
It’s a critical sign of addiction if you can’t quit on your own. When you’re addicted, you may see the damaging effects on your life but still feel powerless to stop. No matter an addicted person’s good intentions, attempts to quit alone are rarely successful.

What is withdrawal?

When you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, you experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit. Withdrawal can have physical and mental symptoms, and you may experience different symptoms depending on your addiction. Common signs of physical withdrawal include:

  • Increased irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Restlessness and anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tremors/shakiness
  • Muscle pain

Certain drug and alcohol addictions may have more severe withdrawal symptoms, such as hallucinations, seizures, or even death. It’s important to seek professional addiction treatment so you can quit your addiction safely and successfully.

What is relapse?

“Relapsing” is returning to an addictive behavior or substance after quitting for an extended period of time (also called “remission”). While relapse can be disappointing, it doesn’t mean your addiction can’t be treated. Instead, you may need a different kind of treatment to quit successfully.

What causes addiction?

There’s no single cause of addiction. Similarly, there are no behaviors that consistently result in addiction.

Some of us can drink alcohol, gamble, or play video games without developing an addiction. Others of us may develop an addiction if we abuse a substance or participate in a behavior over time, and some of us may feel an immediate loss of control at our very first experience with an addictive behavior or substance.

Certain factors that may increase your risk for developing an addiction include:

  • Genetics: If a relative has struggled with addiction, you may be at increased risk. Your addiction could involve the same substance or behavior as your family member’s, or it could be entirely different.
  • Experimentation: You can’t become addicted to a substance you’ve never used or a behavior you’ve never participated in. Experimenting with addictive substances or behaviors increases your risk.
  • Normalization: Your family, friends, or culture may normalize certain addictions through seemingly innocent traditions or direct forms of peer pressure. For example, if you grew up always seeing your parents have a few drinks with dinner, it may feel normal for you to engage in similar behavior as an adult. College students, meanwhile, may be susceptible to the influence of campus drinking culture, where peers often directly encourage alcohol use.
  • Trauma: You may feel drawn to addictive substances or behaviors to cope with physical and mental health effects of trauma, especially if you aren’t receiving professional treatment.

Treatment options for addiction

Addiction is treatable, and help is available. If you’re struggling, there’s hope.

Every person is different, and your treatment plan should be unique to your specific needs and challenges. Generally, though, most doctors and mental health professionals recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Therapy: Many therapists specialize in treating people struggling with addiction. Professional therapy can also treat underlying mental health issues that may be related to your addiction, such as anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Medications: Even if you struggle with drug addictions, medication can play an important role in your treatment. Certain medications can diminish cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it physically easier to quit. Other medications can help by causing an adverse reaction if the addictive substance is consumed.
  • Group therapy/support: It can help to talk with other people who struggle with or have already overcome addiction. Your therapist may recommend a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in addition to your individual therapy sessions.
  • Emergency treatment: The SAMHSA National Helpline is a free, confidential 24/7 service that provides referrals to local treatment facilities and other addiction resources at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Get help now

If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction, you aren’t alone. Browse our provider directory to find an addiction specialist in your area. If you need to speak with someone immediately, call the SAMHSA National Helpline for free, confidential help 24/7 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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