First of all, what exactly is an addiction? The American Psychiatric Association defines them as follows: “Addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences
. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life. They keep using alcohol or a drug even when they know it will cause problems.”
Modern research distinguishes two separate categories of addiction.
The first is substance-related addiction. This involves an addiction to consuming a specific substance. DSM-5 describes ten categories of substances that can be involved in an addiction:
sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics;
stimulants (amphetamine-type substances, cocaine and other stimulants);
Other (or unknown) substances.
The second area of addiction involves behavioral addictions. There is a growing body of research which suggests we might become addicted to certain actions or activities, not just substances. For example, some behaviors, such as gambling, can active rewards systems in the brain which are quite similar to the effects of substance use. This has led many to call for their inclusion in the conversation about addiction. Here are the categories being explored as potential forms of “addiction”:
Addictions result in changes to the brain’s “wiring” which create dependency on the substance. When the substance is not available or not consumed, it results in intense cravings with severe effects, including irritability, mood swings, impulsivity, and nausea.
There are several areas of danger within addictions. The first is the effects of the substance itself. All substances to which one may become addicted have detrimental side effects. These side effects worsen as the person develops an increased tolerance to its primary effect. The second is the resulting behaviors. The American Psychiatric Association identifies 1) impaired control, 2) social problems, and 3) risky use as additional areas of danger involved in addiction.