Phil Rich, Ed.D., MSW

Addictions come in all shapes and forms. Difficult to define exactly, it has become popular to think of almost any behavior that has a compulsive quality as an "addiction." But for those who have an addiction, or for those affected by the addiction of a loved one or close friend, it's clear what an addiction means in "real" terms.

A broad definition of addiction is that it is a dependency on a substance, an activity, or a relationship that become primary in the person's life. It's characterized by desires that consume people's thoughts and behaviors, and is acted out in habitual activities designed to get the desired thing or engage in the desired activity (addictive behaviors). And, unlike simple habits or consuming interests, addictions are "dependencies" with real life consequences that seriously impair, negatively affect, and damages relationships, health (physical and mental), and the capacity to function fully and most effectively.

A more restrictive definition of addiction is that it is only applicable to substance dependence, and the user must show evidence of:

  • habitual use (regular pattern of using); 
  • continued use despite evidence of related problems (physical, social or work related impairment)
  • tolerance (increase need for more and more of the substance)
  • withdrawal (physical need for substance to ward off physical withdrawal symptoms).

For purposes of this article, the first definition of addiction will be used. Using this definition, addicts are "dependent" on that thing which dominates their thoughts and desires and directs their behaviors, and the pursuit of that thing becomes the most important activity in their lives. In the advanced stages of addiction, the addiction dominates decision-making and nothing is as important as the addiction itself.

How Do People Become Addicted?

Some people see addiction as a disease in which addicts are afflicted and have little power over the cause or onset of addiction. Others see addictive behaviors as a choice, and addiction as the frequent outcome of this choice.

 Addiction is considered by some to be a pre-disposition (the "addictive personality"), where others believe it develops through exposure to the addictive behaviors of others (such as family members). In the case of "physical" addictions such as alcoholism or drug dependence, many believe that susceptibility to addiction is passed on genetically. Others believe that addiction is simply the result of repetitive behavior that, in some people, leads to a physical or psychological dependence. It is certainly true that although not all addictions are physical, (gambling for instance), they can be as destructive.

Understanding Addiction and Dependency

Defining exactly what is meant by addiction is not simple. People often associate addiction only with alcohol or drug abuse, but it's clear that addictive behaviors go far beyond. In fact, the key to "addiction" is an obsessive and compulsive need or dependence upon a substance, an object, a relationship, an activity, or a thing. Accordingly, it's both realistic and appropriate to say that someone can be addicted to almost anything. There are six clear indicators of an addiction:

  1. An Object of Desire. There's always an object of desire. This is the substance, thing, activity, or relationship that drives the addiction, whether it be alcohol, food, sex, gambling, pornography, drugs, or anything else that sparks obsessive ideas and drives compulsive behavior.
  2. Preoccupation. There's an obsession with the object of desire; a need for the thing that drives the addiction.
  3. Driven Behaviors. There is a compulsion to reduce cravings and satisfy the obsession that drives the addict's behavior.
  4. Lack of Control. Addiction always implies a lack of control over thoughts, feelings, ideas, or behaviors when it comes to the desired thing. Even when addicts try to stop or cut back on addictive behaviors, they fail. This is the hallmark and a central defining feature of addiction and dependence.
  5. Dependence. There is a dependence on the object of desire, physical or psychological, so only that thing can satisfy the desire and fulfill (at least temporarily) the addict.
  6. Negative Consequences. Addiction is always accompanied by harmful consequences.

The Continuum of Addiction

Addicts don't become addicted overnight. There is progression as people first engage in the behaviors and experiences that may later become addictions, and a risk of creating an addiction over time.

For most addictions "tolerance" is created through repeated use, in which more and more of the substance or activity is required to feel the emotional satisfaction that the addiction brings. Eventually the addict has to use (or engage in the activity) just to feel normal. This is what "dependence" truly means.

Accordingly, there is a continuum of addiction, ranging from pre-addiction to the advanced stages of dependence. The progression from use into addiction can be measured in two ways:

  1. The effect that addictive behaviors have on effective and healthy personal functioning.
  2. The intensity of cravings for the substance, activity, relationship, or thing.

When taken together, these two measurements can help people who engage in addictive behaviors gauge their progression into addiction.

Recovering from Addiction

Whether physical or psychological, we know that addiction can be overcome. Millions of severely addicted people have either found or been helped into recovery, and many millions remain in recovery their entire lives.


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Originally published 11/15/99

Revised 8/25/08 by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.

Phil Rich, EdD, MSW, DCSW is the author of "Understanding, Assessing, and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sexual Offenders," the eight books in "The Healing Journey" series of self help journaling books, and two books in the "Therapy Homework Planner," series, all of which are published by John Wiley & Sons. He is the Clinical Director of the Stetson School, a long-term residential treatment program for sexually reactive children and juvenile sexual offenders.


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