What is addiction?

Jessica Kennedy, Mental Health America

Addiction is a disorder where:

  • You can’t stop using alcohol or drugs;
  • You think your behavior is out of control;
  • You crave alcohol or drugs;
  • You don’t see how much of a problem you’re causing yourself and the people around you; and
  • Your emotions are all over the place.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine formally defines addictions as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

This definition and a longer version can be read here.

You may be wondering if you have an addiction because you drink or use drugs a lot. It’s possible that you do.

Or you may be a heavy drinker or experimenting with drugs. That doesn't mean you're safe, as drinking and using drugs can be dangerous. 

The best way to check is to talk about your concerns with a doctor or a therapist.

In the professional and medical community, people don’t always use the term addiction anymore—they use the phrase “substance use disorder.”

People also talk about being addicted to other things besides alcohol and other drugs, like gambling, sex, or social media. On this site, we’re dealing with the alcohol and drug side of addiction.

It’s common for people to self-diagnose an addiction. For example, someone might feel his or her drinking is out of control, start going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA meetings), and stop drinking completely.

But if you want to get help, it’s a good idea to start with a diagnosis from a medical professional who will walk you through a similar screen to what we use. You can start with your primary care physician (the doctor you see most regularly) or make an appointment directly with a substance use counselor. 

Treatment & Resources