Addiction is a complex condition that is relatively common. It’s defined as a lack of control over doing, taking or using something. It can be substance or behaviour related and manifests as compulsive engagement to the point of possible harm. While commonly associated with gambling, smoking and alcohol or drug misuse, it’s actually possible to be addicted to just about anything.

Many addictions occur because engagement in the activity has an effect on the way you feel, both mentally and physically. More often than not, these feelings are enjoyable and as such, engender a powerful urge to re-engage in the activity. Being addicted to something means that when you are not using the substance or engaging in the activity, you experience withdrawal symptoms. This creates an unpleasant feeling, to the point that it becomes easier to succumb to the craving. This repeated behaviour feeds the cycle of addiction and inevitably, exacerbates the problem.

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People who regularly abuse drugs or alcohol will develop a tolerance to that substance. When a chemical substance is consumed, it affects the body’s production of certain hormones or neurotransmitters. The body then has to make adjustments to offset the effects of the substance consumed. Over time, the effects of the drug or alcohol are counterbalanced by the adjustments your body has made. This then means you need to consume more and more to experience the same high. In this way, chronic drug or alcohol use results in physical dependence. If you stop using the substance, those hormones and neurotransmitters produced by the body to counteract the effects of the substance are felt as severe, physical discomfort. From nausea and fever to pain and in some cases, seizures, withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that continuing to use the substance is the only way to avoid the physical effects. This physical side of addiction can require medical monitoring.


People from all backgrounds can experience addiction. However, some may be more prone to it than others. While certain types of drugs for example, and the ways of using them, are more addictive than others, there are additional factors that can raise your risk of becoming an addict.


Many harmful substances and behaviours stimulate the brain’s reward system; the area that controls pleasure and motivation. The impact on the reward centre of consuming drugs or alcohol for example, is more intense than would occur through normal means. This overstimulation decreases the brain’s response to natural rewards and results in the inability to feel pleasure except when triggered by the abused substance. An imbalance of dopamine can create an unhealthy reward system response in the brain. The brain recognises that using the substance is a source of pleasure. It doesn’t seek to stop, even in the knowledge that it may be harmful.


Addiction isn’t a matter of weak willpower or a question of morality. Neuroscience has shown that people have varying levels of ability and brain function to control impulsive urges with rational thought. As such, heredity is a major risk factor for addiction. If you have family members who’ve experienced addiction, you’re more likely to experience it too.


Environmental factors can also increase the risk of addiction. For young people, a lack of parental involvement can influence risk-taking and experimentation. Parental abuse or neglect is often a trigger for substance misuse. Many people self-medicate and abuse substances as a means of coping with emotional trauma.

Peer pressure may be an alternative factor. An environment of experimentation or pressure from friends to fit in can also increase the risk of addiction to drugs or alcohol. If you’re trying to recover from an addiction, you may need to avoid environmental triggers. You may experience cravings in particular social circles. Avoiding people and places may be necessary to help reduce your risk of relapse.

Many experts believe that at the root of addictive behaviour is some form of emotional stress. To ease this stress or make it go away, many people turn to the pleasure that can be found in excess. Without the distraction of that pleasure, thoughts threaten to return to the source of emotional stress. In the absence of healthy coping mechanisms, addictive behaviour becomes a means of distraction. The focus of the addiction isn’t the problem; the problem is the need to engage in unhealthy behaviour to distract from emotional stress. For many people, their addiction is the manifestation of an issue they may not even be aware of.