What is addiction?

There’s a lot of confusion about what the word “addiction” really means. It can make it really difficult to tell if you have a problem.

The first thing to know is that addiction is a mental illness, not a moral failure. Even though addiction affects your behavior, it’s actually a disorder of the brain. (Medical and mental health professionals often use the term “substance use disorder” instead of “addiction”.) Drug or alcohol use starts to change the structure of your brain, making it more difficult to make logical, healthy decisions about your use. It becomes a downward spiral that’s hard (but not impossible!) to break out of.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine is one of the leading authorities on addiction. Their definition of addiction describes some patterns commonly seen in people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol:

  • You can’t stop using drugs or alcohol—at least not consistently. You might try for a while, but you keep going back for more. Even if something really bad happens because of your drug or alcohol use, you still can’t seem to stop.
  • You experience intense cravings for drugs or alcohol. Sometimes it’s all you can think about. You might be willing to do extreme or dangerous things to get drugs or alcohol.
  • Your drug or alcohol use interferes with your daily life or your relationships. Over time, your behavior gets more and more out of control, and you have less and less awareness of how it’s affecting other people. Often other people notice that your drug or alcohol use is a problem before you do.

Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol fits this description, of course. Many people experiment with drugs or use them recreationally without it taking over their lives. But keep in mind that drugs and alcohol can be dangerous, even if you’re not addicted. If you decide to use them, be sure to do it responsibly. (You can read more about responsible drinking here and here.) Be honest with yourself about whether your drug or alcohol use is causing problems in your life and relationships. And be open to feedback from people you trust.

What should I do if I think I might have an addiction?

Our addiction screen can help you determine whether you’re at risk of having a substance use disorder. To get an official diagnosis, you’ll need to talk to a doctor or a therapist. They can also talk to you about treatment options.

The good news is, like other mental illnesses, addiction is treatable. You can start by learning more about addiction—how it works, and how it’s treated. Talk to someone you trust, and consider getting professional help. Support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous or online support communities, are helpful for many people.

Addiction and other mental illnesses

A lot of the time, substance use is a way of coping with an underlying mental illness. You might hear professionals call this dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Treatment for co-occurring disorders is most effective when it addresses each of the conditions rather than just focusing on one or the other. Fortunately, many of the treatments for addiction also address other mental illnesses, and vice versa.

Is it just drugs and alcohol?

You may have heard someone say they’re “addicted” to coffee, sex, or their phone. There’s a lot of controversy among professionals about labeling these as “addictions.” The definition we’re using here is for substance use disorders specifically. But it’s possible to do anything compulsively (meaning you can’t seem to stop). If you’re having trouble controlling any behavior that’s interfering with your life or relationships, a lot of the same advice applies: talk to a therapist, or learn more about how to improve your mental health on your own.


Treatment & Resources