Addiction is a catch-all term for a complex behavioral disorder. The most obvious symptom is that addicts reach a point where they cannot control their own actions. Even when they can see the harm, they continue the compulsive behavior. The inability to stop, more than any other attribute, explains addiction.
For this reason, addiction was first described as a failure of will power. We now know this is incorrect. Addiction is a real disease with psychological, genetic, and psychosocial aspects. It is not a character flaw or a failure of morality. There are actual changes that occur in the brains of addicts and treatments for addiction must address the biology behind the behavior.
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A medical diagnosis of addiction depends on finding three or more of the following factors (within a 12-month period):
- Tolerance – Use is increased (amount or frequency) to obtain a similar effect.
- Withdrawal – Removing the substance or stopping the activity leads to physical or mental symptoms, such as tremor, seizure, or depression.
- The substance is taken over longer periods and in larger amounts than intended. This automatic ratcheting up of dosage is particularly obvious with drug addiction.
- A desire to stop and a lack of success in doing so. Short-term abstinence will be followed by use that quickly returns to pre-abstinence levels and above. Patients describe this as a loss of control.
- Time is spent in obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of the addictive substance. The addiction begins to define the person’s schedule.
- Important activities are sacrificed because of addiction. These can be work related, personal goals, recreational or social.
- Use is continued despite the knowledge that it is harmful, either physically, psychologically or socially.
While all addictions will exhibit some of these signs, substances and behaviors differ depending on the addiction. Most addicts will deny the extent of their problem, but at some point will admit (at least to themselves) that a problem exists.
Unfortunately, the label, “addict” is has become a powerfully negative and ugly stereotype. It is neither a character defect nor a moral weakness. Anyone can become an addict if they are exposed to the proper stimulus in the right context.
Addiction is a disease and treatments vary somewhat depending on the particular compulsion. For details about a specific addiction, refer to that page on this website.
photo by Nicole Dee
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