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What is addiction?

4-minute read

Addiction is a physical or psychological need to do, take or use something, to the point where it could be harmful to you. This article describes the types, causes and signs of addiction, and where to get help.

Addiction is most commonly associated with gambling, drugs — both illicit and prescriptionalcohol and nicotine, but it's possible to be addicted to anything, such as:

Work — workaholics are obsessed with their work to the extent that they suffer physical exhaustion. If your relationship, family and social life are suffering and you never take holidays, you may be a work addict.

Computers — as computer use has increased, so too has computer addiction. People may spend hours each day and night surfing the internet or playing games while neglecting other aspects of their lives.

Solvents — 'volatile substance abuse' involves inhaling substances such as glue, aerosols, paint or lighter fuel, to give you a feeling of intoxication. Solvent abuse can be fatal.

Shopping — shopping becomes an addiction when you buy things you don't need or want in order to achieve a buzz. This is quickly followed by feelings of guilt, shame or despair.

Whatever a person is addicted to, they can't control how they use it, and they may become dependent on it to get through daily life.

Why does addiction begin?

There are many reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to use the substances again.

Gambling may result in a similar mental 'high' after a win, followed by a strong urge to try again and re-create that feeling. This can develop into a habit that becomes very hard to stop.

Being addicted to something means that not having it causes withdrawal symptoms or a 'come down'. Because this can be unpleasant, it's easier to carry on having or doing what you crave, and so the cycle continues. Often, an addiction gets out of control because you need more and more to satisfy a craving and achieve the 'high'.

The strain of managing an addiction can seriously damage a person's work performance and relationships. In the case of substance abuse (for example, drugs and alcohol), an addiction can have serious psychological and physical effects.

Some studies suggest that addiction is genetic, but environmental factors, such as being brought up by someone with an addiction, are also thought to increase the risk. An addiction can be a way of blocking out difficult issues. Unemployment and poverty can trigger addiction, along with stress, and emotional or professional pressure.

Symptoms of addiction

People may or may not know they are addicted. The symptoms that indicate you, or someone you know, has an addiction include:

  • repeating something even though it interferes with your life
  • stealing or selling things to continue the addictive behaviour
  • losing interest in other things
  • being angry, violent, moody, or depressed
  • seeing changes in eating habits, sleeping habits, or weight
  • feeling sick or shaky when trying to quit.

Some drugs, such as alcohol and ice, can make people unpredictable and violent. If you are worried about your safety, or the safety of someone else, call the police on triple zero (000).

Visit the Alcohol and Drug Foundation website for more information on supporting someone with an addiction.

If you are caring for someone with an addiction, it is just as important to continue to look after yourself. Visit Carer Gateway or call 1800 422 737 (Monday-Friday, 8am-6pm) for more information.

Where to get help

Overcoming addiction is easier if you seek help. Talk to your doctor, or see below for a service that can help. You can search for a doctor in your region here.

To speak to someone anonymously about any kind of addiction, you can also look at a range of national and state-based support services at adf.org.au.

Last reviewed: October 2018

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