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What is addiction?

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Addiction is when you have a need or urge to do something or use something that can interfere with your functioning in other areas of your life.
  • It's possible to be addicted to anything.
  • Living with an addiction can seriously damage your work performance and relationships if it is not addressed early.

What is addiction?

Addiction is when you have a strong physical or psychological need or urge to do something or use something. It is a dependence on a substance or activity even if you know that it causes you harm. It can impact your daily life.

This article describes the types, causes and signs of addiction, and where to get help.

Many people have heard of addiction to:

Addiction to drugs can include cannabis, ice and amphetamines. Alcohol and nicotine are also drugs.

It's possible to be addicted to anything, such as:

  • Computers — computer addiction is increasing. You may spend hours each day and night surfing the internet or playing games. You may neglect other aspects of your life due to sleep deprivation or misplaced priorities.
  • Gambling — may result in a mental 'high' after a win. This 'high' is typically followed by a strong urge to gamble again to get the feeling. This cycle can develop into a habit that becomes very hard to stop.
  • Solvents — 'volatile substance abuse' is when someone deliberately breathes in fumes or chemicals. Sometimes it is called 'sniffing'. The types of substances include glue, aerosols, paint or lighter fuel. You may get a feeling of being drunk or 'buzzing'. Solvent abuse is very dangerous and can cause death.
  • Shopping — shopping becomes an addiction when you buy things you don't need or want, often on impulse. This type of spending can lead to a 'buzz' or a 'high'. This is quickly followed by feelings of guilt, shame or despair.
  • Work — workaholics are entirely focused on their work. They can spend so much energy on work they become exhausted. If your relationship, family and social life are affected and you never take holidays, you may be a work addict.

Whatever you are addicted to, you will eventually lose control. You will become dependent on it to get through your daily life.

Why does addiction begin?

There are many reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances change the way you feel and lead to addiction. There can be physical and/or mental changes from these drugs. The feelings can be enjoyable. This can cause a strong urge to use the substances again.

Some studies suggest that addiction is genetic. However, environmental factors are also thought to increase the risk of becoming addicted. Environmental factors include having a parent or carer with an addiction, who normalises these behaviours.

An addiction can be a way of coping with difficult issues. Unemployment and poverty can trigger addiction. Other triggers can be stress, relationships, emotional or work pressures.

What are the symptoms of addiction?

An addiction can very easily get out of control. This happens when you need more to satisfy your craving and achieve the 'high'.

You may or may not know you are addicted. Symptoms of addiction include:

  • repeating a behaviour even though it interferes with your life
  • stealing or selling things to provide money for the addictive behaviour
  • dangerous or risky behaviour
  • losing interest in other things
  • being angry, violent, moody, or depressed
  • noticing changes in eating habits, sleeping habits, or weight
  • feeling sick or shaky when trying to quit

Living with an addiction can be very stressful. It can seriously damage your work performance and relationships. In the case of drugs and alcohol, an addiction can have serious mental and physical impacts.

Some substances, such as alcohol and ice, can make you unpredictable and violent.

If you are worried about your safety, or the safety of someone else, call the police on triple zero (000).

Can addiction be treated?

The short answer is yes, although it may take time and commitment.

Sometimes people are very dependent on a substance. When they try and stop taking it, they can get withdrawal symptoms. This is sometimes called a 'come down'. Withdrawal symptoms can be very unpleasant. It can seem easier to carry on having or doing what you crave.

There are many services that can help you if you have an addiction. There are treatment and care centres that help with counselling and managing withdrawal. They can organise specialist help and places to go to get you back on track. Various services are run by local councils, state government health departments, and non-government organisations.

You can talk to your doctor about getting help. There are other places to go for help listed below.

Resources and support

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.

You can speak to someone anonymously about any kind of addiction. You can find support services near you at

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.

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

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2023

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