What is Addiction?

By: Celeste Allies – Social Worker

Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences. Addiction may involve the use of substances such as alcohol, inhalants, opioids, cocaine, nicotine, and others, or behaviours such as gambling.

Both substance use disorders and gambling behaviours have an increased likelihood of being accompanied by mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety or other pre-existing problems.

Complex conditions that affect reward, reinforcement, motivation, and memory systems of the brain, substance use and gambling disorders are characterized by impaired control over usage; social impairment, involving disruption of everyday activities and relationships; and may involve craving. Continuing use is typically harmful to relationships and work or school obligations.

Another distinguishing feature is that individuals may continue the activity despite physical or psychological harm incurred or exacerbated by use. And typically, tolerance to the substance increases, as the body adapts to its presence.

Because addiction affects the brain’s executive functions, individuals who develop an addiction may not be aware that their behaviour is causing problems for themselves and others. Over time, pursuit of the pleasurable effects of the substance or behaviour may dominate an individual’s activities.

Although all addictions have the capacity to induce a sense of hopelessness and feelings of failure, as well as shame and guilt, research documents that recovery is the rule rather than the exception, and that there are many routes to recovery. Individuals can achieve improved physical, psychological, and social functioning on their own—so-called natural recovery. Others prefer the support of community or peer-based networks. Still others opt for clinical-based recovery through the services of credentialed professionals.

The road to recovery is seldom straight: Relapse, or recurrence of substance use, is common—but not the end of the road.

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