What Is Addiction?

7 min
Article preview picture

Have you ever felt the unbearable need for something ー a need so strong that you can’t quite explain it; one so powerful that it feels like more of a compulsion? Perhaps it’s something you feel an overwhelming desire to use, consume, or engage in, or maybe it’s something that you are already enjoying considerably, yet feel that something inside of you wants, needs, and demands more of it to a point of excess ー even if you know it’ll hurt you, or make you feel bad. 

This is addiction. And while some people are more prone to it than others, or experience it to a greater extent, some research has suggested that we are all susceptible to it in some way: Our brains are hard-wired to experience some level of addiction, in some form or another, at some point in our lives. 

Common addictions ー particularly drug use and alcoholism ー have been found to be the major cause of a wide range of health consequences, from destroying bodily systems to increasing one’s chance of developing mental health issues. For those who don’t drink, smoke, or use drugs, you may think that addiction isn’t something that can take control of you ー but the unfortunate truth is that addiction can happen to anyone, and not only drug users and alcoholics suffer from it. Some addictions are not related to the use of substances, but rather, to activities that we do in daily life that are seemingly normal to us ー for instance, scrolling on your phone, playing video games, drinking coffee, or shopping. 

In psychology, these are known as “non-substance addictions,” characterized by the compulsion to follow certain behaviors. If it’s left unrecognized and untreated, addiction can mess with your life ー and if you let your guard down, you can develop it without realizing it. There is a fine line between passion, habit, and addiction, so it’s wise to stay conscious of your habits, keep them healthy, and break the bad ones before they develop into something nefarious. Learning about ways to avoid, manage, and treat addiction can help you protect yourself.

The Psychology of Addiction

Addiction is a sense of compulsion and difficulty in controlling the use of substances or behaviors. These tend to be initially pleasurable, before they start negatively affecting one’s normal daily functioning, including work, health, or interpersonal relationships. Addiction can happen when an individual has become highly dependent on certain substances or behaviors, making a person unlikely to resist their urges to stop relying on them.

It is believed that addiction can drastically alter a person in numerous ways, from one’s mental state such as their thoughts and behaviors, to their physical condition, by affecting their biology and brain chemistry. In psychology, addiction involves both physical and psychological dependence, as outlined below:

  • Physical dependence: This occurs when the body has become overly reliant on a substance or behaviors, to an extent of resulting in biological changes. This dependence tends to be more apparent when people try to withdraw from an addictive stimulus ー such as experiencing unpleasant feelings or bodily changes.
  • Psychological dependence: This occurs when one has a need to rely on an addictive stimulus to relieve negative feelings, typically caused by stress and challenging life events. This dependence is characterized when people are addicted due to emotional purposes, through things that reduce stress and provide pleasure.  

Different Types of Addiction

Addiction comes in different forms, and each addiction is associated with a specific stimulus. Types of addiction are often grouped into one of these two categories:

  • Substance Addiction: This addiction is related to the consumption or use of substances, which typically cause more physical changes to one’s brain chemistry and body systems.  
  • Non-Substance Addiction: This addiction involves a compulsion to perform or indulge in certain behaviors. People with this type of addiction can find it relieving while they engage in those activities. 
Substance vs. Non-Substance Addiction

What Are the Causes of Addiction?

Addiction can be caused by biological factors such as genes and brain chemistry, as well as influence from social factors ー for example, having friends who regularly offer substances, or a family member who is addicted to smoking. Addiction tends to be triggered by stress, and it can begin when an individual becomes overwhelmed about coping with a difficult situation. When one has learned to gain pleasure or relief from a particular substance or behavior, and turns this into a habit, it can turn into an addiction

One of the most general causes of addiction can be illustrated by The Habit Loop. The model was first introduced in 2012 by Charles Duhigg ー an author and an expert in the field of the science of productivity ー in his book, The Power of Habit. The model postulates that there is a cycle behind the formation of every habit, comprised of three elements:

  • Cue: This is the trigger of a habit. The cue for addiction is typically negative emotions, such as stress and anxiety
  • Routine: This is the habit that people do. Addiction involves a negative habitual behavior.
  • Reward: This is the result of the routine. The rewards of an addiction loop usually include a "mood boost" that enhances one's emotions. 
Addiction Loop

While having a positive routine can help people to cope with the cue better, addiction happens when an individual has a negative routine. For example, when a person is struggling with work stress (cue), but instead of using positive coping strategies like self-care and seeking social support, they use alcohol (routine) as a way to relieve their stress (reward) and as a temporarily escaping from, or numbing the pains of, job burnout

An individual can become an addict when they repeatedly rely on these substances or activities for pleasure ー or even use them to escape from reality ー and shut their eyes to the dangerous consequences of addiction.

The Dangers of Addiction

Leaving addiction untreated can lead to serious health consequences that affect our physical and mental health. Addiction can significantly damage our ability to function normally on a daily basis, including work performance and the ability to connect socially with others. For instance, individuals with a gambling addiction might borrow money from family members or friends, potentially sacrificing their precious relationships to satisfy their craving. While different types of addiction tend to result in different impacts, broadly speaking, addiction can affect us in numerous ways, including:

Addiction can also increase one’s risk of developing serious health issues. Studies have found that substance addiction has been linked to the increased risk of terminal illnesses like Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and cancer, increasing the chances of early death. Consumption of certain substances can also cause hallucinations that make an individual feel “high.” Addiction can alter one’s brain ー such as our ability to think clearly and memorize new information ー in a way that can be detrimental to normal brain functioning.

How Do You Overcome Addiction?

While there is no singular method for treating addiction, there are tips that can make it more manageable and controllable. Recovery methods typically involve lifestyle changes, psychological treatments, and the support of friends and family ー or a combination of all three. Below are some common ways to overcome addiction:

  • Build Healthy Social Circles: Pay attention to your interactions with people in your current social circles. Are they truly supportive of you, with your best interests at heart? Stay away from toxic people ー these might be ”friends” who keep encouraging you to have “one more drink” on Friday night even when you have expressed a desire to not have any more, or ”friends” who insistently offer and try to coerce you into taking drugs that you don’t actually want to take. Understand that they are not genuine friends, and set boundaries. Try to spend your precious time with people who actually care about you, and connect with people who have a more positive influence on your life. 
  • Figure Out The Root Cause: Addiction happens for a reason. What makes you dependent on those substances or behaviors? What problems are you trying to avoid? Identifying your triggers can help you better understand the onset of these compulsions. For instance, if you’re feeling neglected by your partner, rather than trying to fill this emotional void by shopping for things you don’t necessarily need, perhaps you could have a conversation with your partner about spending more quality time together and working on building your intimacy. In another common example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a highly challenging project at work, rather than heading outside for a cigarette, why not take a walk around the block to clear your head instead, so you can come back to tackle the problem with a fresher mindset? In psychology, the cognitive-behavioral approach suggests that our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings are all interconnected. Not only can addressing the root cause help you avoid addiction, it also helps you notice how your thoughts and feelings can contribute to negative feelings. 
  • Develop Positive Habits: Replacing the negative routine in The Habit Loop with a positive one can help you to deal with your addiction. If you cannot control your urge to gamble for example, a method that may help you overcome it is to learn a new hobby ー such as painting or a new language ー and force yourself to do that instead whenever you feel like gambling, until the replacement habit sticks. If you are addicted to junk food, you might consider replacing the urge to eat it by drinking more water and consuming a healthier substitute, until your tastes and cravings transform. Planning your meals in advance can be a boon in this instance. Exercise is another good way to overcome addiction: When you’re feeling frustrated, angry, or anxious, rather than reaching for a drink or substance to help relieve the emotion, swapping that out for a workout can help you reduce stress by boosting your endorphins ー the happy hormone ー and giving you a more natural, healthier “high”. However, there is a caveat to note here: even the healthiest habits can become harmful when the psychology behind them becomes compulsive, as a result of triggers and avoiding the real cause of our feelings. As such it is important to make sure you are not just swapping one addiction for another. One key way to stop addiction replacement is to keep an eye on your habits and the motivations behind them. Ask yourself how you feel when you do these things. Are you doing them to celebrate, or to medicate? Identifying the source of your desires, and being courageous enough to admit it to yourself when something has become an unhealthy compulsion, can go a long way. 
  • Seek Professional Help: If you feel like your addiction is getting more difficult to control, and that your own efforts and lifestyle changes are not likely to work for you anymore, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional for their support. One of the most widely-used psychological and behavioral treatments for addiction is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), wherein a therapist helps an individual to overcome a bad habit by challenging their destructive thought patterns ー thoughts such as “unfettered online shopping, or drugs, can bring me joy.” Joining an addiction support group can also facilitate the recovery process. By meeting people who are going through a similar situation ー who are also making a concerted effort to overcome their addictions ー you can find people to relate to, feel like you’re not alone in this journey, and reinforce your belief that you have the power to transform your life.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Addictions - American Psychological Association; What is the Difference Between Physical Dependence and Psychological Dependence; Definition of Substance and Non-substance Addiction; About - Charles Duhigg; The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business; Job Problems Caused By Addiction; How Does Addiction Affect Relationships?; Food Addiction and Associations With Mental Health Symptoms: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis; Drug Addiction and Diabetes: South Asian Action; The Rate of Addiction in Parents of Children With Congenital Heart Disease Compared With Healthy Children; Is Biological Aging Accelerated in Drug Addiction?; Tobacco Addiction and HIV Infection: Toward the Implementation of Cessation Programs. ANRS CO3 Aquitaine Cohort; Substance Abuse and Cancer; Drug Induced Psychosis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment; Addiction And The Brain; Why Do We Need Endorphins?; Benefits of Peer Support Groups in the Treatment of Addiction.

Share this story
Read more
  • Article preview
    15 Mar 2022

    5 Ways To Overcome Job Burnout

    5 min

    If you’re feeling more than a little stressed out, demotivated, and emotionally depleted, and going to work has become a source of constant worry for you rather than joy (or, at least, your regular everyday moods), you could be experiencing job burnout. Burnout is so pervasive in our society that it is included in the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Diseases, where it is defined as an “occupational phenomenon” that occurs when “chronic workplace stress has not been successfully managed.” 

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    13 Apr 2022

    The Relationship between Alcohol, Stress, and Anxiety

    3 min

    For many people, alcohol is a go-to in times of stress or anxiety. It can help us unwind from an overwhelming week, and melt away the tension of the day. But when alcohol, food, or any other habits become a crutch to cope with stress and anxiety, they can actually make things worse over the long-term. It can be a tricky line to tread. On the one hand, we need and deserve pleasure, and it’s important to have practices that help us relax – particularly when life gets tough. But when these become a regular strategy for numbing out our stressors rather than addressing them, we can end up in a self-perpetuating stress cycle.

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    30 Mar 2022

    5 Tips for Dealing with Anxiety

    5 min

    Anxiety can feel like someone is controlling your body without your permission. Unlike nervousness, anxiety doesn’t usually go away easily, even after a stressful situation has ended. It tends to persist and, as a result, can affect daily life in many ways. Anxiety can make people feel like there is no way out, and it may create worrying feelings that you cannot control, even making you feel like you are starting to lose control of your life. This can be extremely harmful to our mental health, and leaving these feelings untreated can make people feel frustrated, stressed, and emotionally drained. 

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    1 Mar 2022

    What is Stress?

    10 min

    Are you stressed out from work, school, or relationships? It’s a normal response, especially when you’re under pressure. Stress is often part-and-parcel of everyday life, and in some small doses, it can have some positive effects by keeping you alert, pushing you to be more motivated, and building resilience, according to experts. But when there’s too much of it for too long ー when you experience chronic stress, or remain in a high-stress level for a prolonged period of time ーit can easily lead to more severe consequences. This type of stress can lead to mental health issues that could drastically harm our psychological state and well-being, in addition to having physiological effects such as migraines, muscle tension, fatigue, chest pains, stomach upset, or changes in your libido, to name a few. Learning to identify when your stress becomes distress or a more serious problem ー and how to manage or relieve it ー is a crucial part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

    Read full article
  • Article preview
    8 Apr 2022

    What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Can It Help You?

    11 min

    Sometimes, when life gets tough, you may hear a little voice in your head telling you, "You are not worthy," or "You are not good enough." Of course, we don't want to listen to it, but sometimes, this mysterious voice just doesn't seem to want to let us go. At first, you may not even be aware of it. You may think that if you ignore it, it’ll eventually go away on its own. But the truth is, that voice will still be there lurking in the back of your mind and affecting the way you think, feel, and even act. When you let down your defenses and give up on fighting it, chances are that it can mislead you into thinking that whatever it’s saying is true. And the result? It can negatively affect your self-esteem and self-worth, by making you start questioning them. In psychology, this mysterious voice is known as negative self-talk, and it can make people feel trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts.

    Read full article