What is Addiction?

How do we define addiction?

Based on clinical criteria, addiction is a condition wherein a person chronically abuses a substance (heroin, prescription drugs, alcohol, nicotine) or engages in a particular activity (gambling, sex) despite adverse consequences that ultimately interfere with daily responsibilities such as work or school, health, regular functioning, and interpersonal relationships.


The term “addiction,” however, is not used in the medical literature. Instead, such conditions are classified as Substance Use Disorders and are marked by criteria that are behavioral in nature.

What do we mean exactly when we use the word addiction? The concept has been debated for decades by professionals, organizations, and people affected by its usually devastating consequences. Is it a physical or psychological addiction? Is addiction truly a disease?

Before addiction was conceptualized as a disease around 45 years ago, “addicts” were vilified more often that not. People with addictions were perceived as lacking in morality, discipline, and character. They were viewed as selfish and hedonistic.

With the emergence of addiction as a disease, however, people were less judgmental about individuals with addictive behaviors. Addiction was defined as a “sickness” as opposed to a willful act. This came with a new brand of stigma, as being “diseased.” While people are seemingly more patient with those battling addictions now than in the past, individuals who struggle still have to handle negativity from society, loved ones, and their own self-criticism.

How much of addiction is ultimately in the individual’s hands?

There is ample scientific evidence showing that people become chemically dependent on substances. Addiction is perceived as a disease of the brain in which people continue to use despite adverse consequences. In the last decade, there has been a significant increase in neurobiological and genetic research related to addiction. We now know that addiction is marked by an intricate framework of biological components, from genetic predispositions to how the brain adapts to a substance’s pharmacological effects. The medical field increasingly identifies addiction as a chronic disorder of the brain.


Addiction is also seen as a psychological condition. The compulsive use of substances is commonly linked to emotional stressors. Understanding addictive behavior in the context of maladaptive coping techniques is pivotal comprehending psychological dependence. Discerning what about certain situations makes them so emotionally distressing, or such strong “triggers,” is significant to reaching the ultimate goal of replacing addictive behaviors with those that are more healthy and meaningful.

The biological and psychological aspects of addiction will continue to be debated for decades to come. What is most significant is that people who struggle with addiction are experiencing turmoil in their lives. They often feel like they have no control and want desperately to change. Many individuals feel a sense of guilt and shame because of their continued use despite this yearning for change.

The more that individuals who use, their friends and family, and the community as a whole understand about the integrated physical and psychological nature of addiction, the better we can develop a supportive framework to facilitate the recovery process.



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