People sometimes jokingly use the term "addiction" in everyday conversation, referring to themselves as "chocolate addicts" or "workaholics." But addiction isn't something to be taken lightly. Addiction to alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications, gambling, and other substances or activities can cause serious health issues and problems with family members, friends, coworkers, work, money, and the law. Yet, despite these problems, a person continues to use the substance or engage in the activity.

People with an addiction tend to show the three Cs:

  • craving for the object of the addiction, which can be mild to intense
  • loss of control over use of the object of the addiction
  • continued engagement with the object of the addiction in spite of harmful consequences.

In its most basic definition, addiction is a physical dependence on a substance or activity. The dependence leads to unpleasant symptoms, called withdrawal symptoms, that appear when a person stops using the substance or doing the activity.

Nobody starts out wanting to develop an addiction. But some people do get attracted to certain substances or behaviors for specific reasons. Most of these objects of addiction offer people some psychological, social, or physical rewards. Those rewards are often compelling, so the substance or behavior remains appealing even if it also comes at a cost.

One key element in overcoming addiction involves recognizing the value it holds. Once you understand the value you derive from your addiction, you can seek alternate  and less destructive  methods for filling that need.

Addiction Articles

Alcohol Dependence (Alcoholism)

Alcoholism (alcohol dependence) is the most severe type of drinking problem. There is no absolute number of drinks per day or quantity of alcohol that defines alcoholism, but experts have defined a limit above which the risks of drinking increase significantly. Here are some defining characteristics of alcohol dependence: Tolerance – The need to drink more and more alcohol to feel the same effects, or the ability to drink more than other people without getting drunk. Withdrawal symptoms – After stopping or cutting back on drinking, symptoms are anxiety, sweating, trembling, trouble sleeping, nausea or vomiting, and, in severe cases, physical seizures and hallucinations. Desire to stop drinking, but inability to do so. Loss of control over the amount of alcohol consumed. Preoccupation with drinking. Paying less attention to other life activities. Ignoring problems, sometimes very obvious ones. A person with alcohol dependence has come to rely on alcohol physically, psychologically and emotionally. The brain adapts to the presence of alcohol and undergoes persistent changes. When alcohol use suddenly stops, the body's accustomed internal environment changes drastically, causing symptoms of withdrawal. Alcoholism can be linked many psychological, interpersonal, social, economic and medical problems. Alcoholism can increase the risk of depression and suicide and play a role in violent crimes, including homicide and domestic violence (abuse of a spouse or child). It can lead to traffic accidents and even accidents involving intoxicated pedestrians who decide to walk home after drinking. Alcoholism also can lead to unsafe sexual behavior, resulting in accidental pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Alcohol dependence increases the risk of liver disease (hepatitis and cirrhosis), heart disease, stomach ulcers, brain damage, stroke and other health problems. In pregnant women who drink alcohol, there is also the danger that the child will develop fetal alcohol syndrome, a cluster of health problems including unusually low birth weight, facial abnormalities, heart defects and learning difficulties. The lifetime chance of developing alcoholism is very difficult to determine, but it is very common. In the United States, about 1 in 16 adults have severe problems with drinking and millions more are engaged in what experts consider risky drinking. In fact, a recent analysis revealed that 30% of a representative sample of U.S. residents reported an alcohol use disorder at some time in their lives. Alcohol problems come about from a combination of biological tendencies and environmental influences. Biology. People with a family history of alcohol dependence are at greater risk for developing the illness themselves. For example, if a parent has alcohol dependence, a child has a four-times greater risk of becoming alcohol-dependent. This is partly due to inheriting genes that increase vulnerability, perhaps by governing a person's physical responses to alcohol or the experience of intoxication. Sometimes alcohol is used to blot out feelings arising from an underlying depression or anxiety disorder. Environment. Alcohol may be a big part of a person's social group or may have been a part of family life (sometimes quite destructively). A person may turn to alcohol to get relief from stress (which frequently backfires, because the drinking causes problems of its own). Family support and healthy friendships can reduce the risk.   (Locked) More »

Substance Abuse (Depressants or Sedative-Hypnotic Drugs)

Sedative-hypnotic drugs — commonly called "depressants" — slow down or "depress" the activity of the brain. The best known are barbiturates (Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, phenobarbital) and benzodiazepines (Ativan, Halcion, Librium, Valium, Xanax, Rohypnol). Other drugs in this group include chloral hydrate (which when mixed with alcohol was once known as "knockout drops" or a "Mickey Finn"), glutethimide (Doriden), methaqualone (Quaalude, Sopor, "ludes") and meprobamate (Equanil, Miltown and other brand names). Although alcohol is also a depressant, alcohol is so common that health experts classify alcohol-related problems separately. Regular use of these drugs often leads to "drug tolerance." That is, the body adjusts to them and it takes a higher and higher dose to achieve the desired effect. Dependence also can develop, meaning withdrawal symptoms will occur if the drug is suddenly stopped. Many of these sedative-hypnotic drugs have legitimate uses. Benzodiazepines are a good treatment for anxiety and are also useful in sleep disorders. Barbiturates are used to treat seizures and for anesthesia during major surgery. But using barbiturates to get "high" can be very dangerous. There is a relatively small difference between the desired dose and an overdose. A small miscalculation, which is easy to make, can lead to coma, respiratory distress (breathing slows or stops) and death. Withdrawal from barbiturates is similar to, and sometimes more severe than, alcohol withdrawal. Seizures are possible and can also lead to death. Compared to barbiturates, benzodiazepines are much safer. They cause sedation but rarely stop a person's breathing or lead to death. They have the potential to be psychologically harmful by causing over-sedation, memory impairment, poor motor coordination and confusion. Withdrawal reactions can be extremely uncomfortable, although they usually are not deadly. Combining any of these drugs, or using them with alcohol, can lead to dangerous effects. People often take these combinations to try to get higher or to counter unpleasant effects of other street drugs. (Locked) More »

Alcohol Withdrawal

What Is It? Alcohol withdrawal is the changes the body goes through when a person suddenly stops drinking after prolonged and heavy alcohol use. Symptoms include trembling (shakes), insomnia, anxiety, and other physical and mental symptoms. Alcohol has a slowing effect (also called a sedating effect or depressant effect) on the brain. In a heavy, long-term drinker, the brain is almost continually exposed to the depressant effect of alcohol. Over time, the brain adjusts its own chemistry to compensate for the effect of the alcohol. It does this by producing naturally stimulating chemicals (such as serotonin or norepinephrine, which is a relative of adrenaline) in larger quantities than normal. If the alcohol is withdrawn suddenly, the brain is like an accelerated vehicle that has lost its brakes. Not surprisingly, most symptoms of withdrawal are symptoms that occur when the brain is overstimulated. (Locked) More »

Treating opiate addiction, Part I: Detoxification and maintenance

Dozens of opiates and related drugs (sometimes called opioids) have been extracted from the seeds of the opium poppy or synthesized in laboratories. The poppy seed contains morphine and codeine, among other drugs. Synthetic derivatives include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percodan, OxyContin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and heroin (diacetylmorphine). Some synthetic opiates or opioids with a different chemical structure but similar effects on the body and brain are propoxyphene (Darvon), meperidine (Demerol), and methadone. Physicians use many of these drugs to treat pain. Opiates suppress pain, reduce anxiety, and at sufficiently high doses produce euphoria. Most can be taken by mouth, smoked, or snorted, although addicts often prefer intravenous injection, which gives the strongest, quickest pleasure. The use of intravenous needles can lead to infectious disease, and an overdose, especially taken intravenously, often causes respiratory arrest and death. Addicts take more than they intend, repeatedly try to cut down or stop, spend much time obtaining the drug and recovering from its effects, give up other pursuits for the sake of the drug, and continue to use it despite serious physical or psychological harm. Some cannot hold jobs and turn to crime to pay for illegal drugs. Heroin has long been the favorite of street addicts because it is several times more potent than morphine and reaches the brain especially fast, producing a euphoric rush when injected intravenously. But prescription opiate analgesics, especially oxycodone and hydrocodone, have also become a problem. More »

Low-tar cigarettes are not a safer choice

Studies show smoking high-tar unfiltered cigarettes, as opposed to medium-tar filtered cigarettes, greatly increases your risk of lung cancer. So, cigarettes labeled as low-tar or ultra light are an even safer choice, right? Wrong. A study comparing the lung cancer risks of different types of cigarettes found this seemingly logical assumption is false. The study six years and involved over 900,000 Americans over the age of 30. The researchers compared the risk of death from lung cancer among men and women who were smokers, former smokers, or had never smoked. When analyzed according to the tar rating of cigarette smoked, the results of the study showed the risk of lung cancer death was greatest for smokers of high-tar unfiltered cigarettes. The risk of lung cancer death was no different among smokers of medium-, low-, and very low-tar cigarettes. These findings do not come as a complete surprise to researchers. A previous study showed smokers of low-tar cigarettes compensate for the decrease in tar level by changing their inhalation pattern. By blocking ventilation holes in the filter, increasing the drag time, holding the puff longer and deeper, or smoking more cigarettes, addicted smokers may maintain their nicotine intake (and exposure to carcinogens) with low-tar cigarettes. More »

Using Addictive Substances

A report recently issued by the National Cancer Institute proves what many people have suspected all along: "light" cigarettes are more a marketing ploy, than an attempt to make smoking safer.Light and ultralight cigarettes produce lower amounts of tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes when smoked by testing machines. However, this is not the case when a person uses them. This is due to the smoker's desire to get as much of the harmful chemicals as possible, and from the design of the cigarette. Because smokers are addicted to nicotine, not the act of smoking, they usually inhale harder on light cigarettes or simply smoke more of them to get their fix. And the way the cigarettes are designed- with ventilation holes placed where smokers' fingers or lips easily block them - means smokers are often inhaling harder than necessary, regardless of whether or not they are craving more nicotine.In the 1960s and '70s, studies on light cigarettes showed promising results. Smokers using the reduced strength cigarettes had lower risk of lung cancer risk than those using the full-strength tobacco products. The increasing use of light products was expected to further decrease smoking-related diseases. Unfortunately, this has not come to pass. Lung cancer rates rose until the early 90s. And it was a decrease in smoking in general—not tobacco light—that has caused the decline seen since then.December 2001 Update Back to Top Quitting smoking greatly reduces your risk of death from congestive heart failure within two years.Despite a lack of evidence, physicians have long advised patients with congestive heart failure to quit smoking to improve their chances of survival. Now, a recent study provides the necessary proof.Researchers in Canada investigated the rates of death, hospitalization for heart failure, and heart attack in smokers, ex-smokers of less than 2 years, ex-smokers of more than 2 years, and non-smokers. All the participants in the study had congestive heart failure in the form of left ventricular dysfunction — failure of the left ventricle of the heart to properly pump oxygen-rich blood to the body.The study found current smoking was associated with a substantial increase in the risk of death, rate of hospitalization, and heart attack. Patients who had quit smoking or never smoked had a 30% lower risk of dying during the time of the study (41 months). Moreover, ex-smokers had the same mortality rate as non-smokers.These results suggest people who quit smoking lower their risk of recurrent congestive heart failure within two years. The research also showed the benefit from quitting smoking was just as great as the benefit from taking drugs for heart failure.September 2001 Update More »