What is addiction

Addiction refers to the compulsive use of a substance or compulsive engagement in a behavior despite the harmful consequences that follow. In simpler terms, you know someone is addicted to something if they keep doing/using it even though they have had negative consequences from it.

Different ways of defining addictions

To better understand what an addiction is, it may be helpful to look at other definitions of addictions. It should be noted that the definitions listed here do not contradict each other. Instead, they bring to light the different aspects of addictions and what we know about them so far.

NIH on drug addiction

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “An addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.” This definition brings to light the fact that addicts may encounter relapses when they try to stop the abuse.

They also go ahead and point out the fact that addiction is a neuropsychological disorder, in that it’s both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness. Neuropsychology refers to the study of the relationship between brain functions and emotions, thinking, and behavior. Additionally, they also inform us that addictions may lead to long-lasting changes in the brain.

Addictions as a complex brain disorder

An addiction is a complex brain disorder because it affects the brain’s motivation, reward, memory, and other related circuitry which can affect how you behave when you are addicted to something.

Addictions as a mental illness

Addictions affect how addicts function in their daily lives

A mental illness is a health condition that involves changes in how people think, feel or act. Mental illnesses typically cause the affected person to have difficulty functioning effectively in various contexts like work or with friends. This definition supports the idea that addiction is a mental illness because it often leads to disruptions in some of these aspects of the addict’s life.

American Society of Addiction Medicine on drug addiction

According to the ASAM, “An addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” 

There are two main aspects of addictions highlighted in this definition. Addictions are treatable. This provides hope both to addicts and people with addicts in their lives that there are available interventions.

The second and most important aspect is the fact that addictions are multifaceted both in their causes and their effects. There are different neurobiological and psychosocial factors shown to affect how addiction develops. This implies that while it may be easy to identify an addict, it will likely be harder to understand what factors worked together to lead them to the addiction and how the addiction affects the addict’s life.

Side note:

  • Neurobiology is the biology of the nervous system
  • Psychosocial factors are those that result from the interrelation of individual thoughts and behavior and social factors.

The DSMV on addictions

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatry Association and used by mental health professionals in diagnosing patients.

The DSMV’s classification of addiction is not as straightforward as those we have covered here today. While they list Substance Use Disorders as a diagnosis, they do not list activity addictions except gambling. This is not to say that they do not acknowledge the existence of behavioral addictions.

One thing the DSMV does is to point out 11 criteria falling under four categories that can arise from substance misuse. When a patient is diagnosed using these criteria, the physician can determine how severe the addiction is, which in term may advise on their treatment. We will look at these criteria in another article. 

The DSMV’s criteria help determine the severity of an addict’s addiction

The main thing to note here is that addictions are not as black and white as we would like them to be. The severity of the addiction may alter how the addict experiences the addiction’s consequences in their life as well as assist physicians in charting the best course of action when treating patients.

Mental Help on addiction

According to Mental HelpAddiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.

This definition points to the fact that addictions often do not start out being harmful to the addicts. In many cases, the addict’s addiction of choice serves a purpose or served a purpose in the past. We will look at some of these reasons in a future article.

Putting this all together

Combining the definition of addiction at the beginning of this article and those brought out in the rest of the article, the following key parts of addiction come to light.

  1. Addictions can be to both activities and substances
  2. Addicts suffer various consequences of their addictions
  3. Addicts chose to continue abusing their addiction of choice despite the experienced consequences.
  4. The addict’s use is likely compulsive meaning that the addict has an uncontrollable urge to use the substance or do the activity. Note that not all compulsions are addictive compulsions, as this article points out.
  5. Addictions are both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness.
  6. There are many factors that lead to someone becoming addicted and people face different effects, meaning that not all addicts are the same
  7. Addictions exist on a spectrum with different severity
  8. Addictions are sustained because they are or were pleasurable and/or valuable.
  9. Addicts may experience relapses in their attempts to quit their addictions
  10. Addictions are treatable.
  11. Addictions may lead to some long-lasting brain changes even after the addict has recovered.


There likely isn’t a complete definition of addiction for two main reasons. Firstly, a complete definition would probably be too long and consequently become confusing. Secondly. We are still learning more about addictions so the definition may keep changing. For purposes of this addiction series, the 10 points highlighted in the section above will serve as a guide as we try to understand addictions more and find ways of helping the addicts in our lives.

Thank you for reading. Any comments are welcome and feel free to share this article with someone you think may be interested.

Bye for now,


11 thoughts on “What is addiction”

  1. Lovely and very informative… It was like reading through a lounge material but on addiction. I’ve learnt some things. Kudos!

    1. This article is good, sadly when people hear about addiction it’s always the harmful substances that ppl take/engage in willingly ,they don’t go beyond their own views and shallow understanding to grasp some of this basic information and the depth of its harm .

      1. Hey. Thank you for reading and commenting. ????
        And you are right. I am hoping by putting this information out there, I can help educate more people.

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