What is an Addiction? Addiction Definition
The term "addiction" describes a compulsive act which causes harm to the person and those around them and over which the person no longer has control. An example of this is a person who constantly drinks to excess in spite of the fact that it is hurting his family and career. An addict may even deny there is a problem and state they are, "just having fun."(see Addiction Symptoms: Signs of an Addict)
The definition of addiction has historically been applied to substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and drug addiction; however, some researchers now believe the addiction definition can equally be applied to behaviors such as sex and shopping.
When asking "what is addiction," we can turn to The American Society of Addiction Medicine which uses the following addiction definition:1
"Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry . . . This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. The addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one's behaviors and interpersonal relationships . . ."
According to this addiction definition, a person can be addicted to any substance, legal or illegal, as well as any behavior the addict finds pleasurable. Addiction is considered a mental illness and can be treated similarly to other mental illnesses with therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.
Addiction and Abuse: What's the Difference?
There is no definition of addiction in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), but substance abuse is defined for drugs like nicotine, heroin, marijuana, alcohol and others.
Substance abuse is defined as any of the following over a 12-month period:2
- Dysfunction in work, school or home because of substance abuse
- Repeated use of substance in dangerous situations
- Substance-related legal problems
- Personal problems as a result of substance use
This definition of abuse can be applied to behaviors as well as substances. Drug abuse or abuse of a behavior describes use that harms the self or others. Addiction is not the same as abuse, however.
More than just abusive use of the drug or behavior, the definition of addiction is characterized by psychological changes and changes to behaviors in daily life such as:
- Inability to stop; relapse
- Fixation on addiction
- Loss of control over addiction
- Continuing addiction in spite of negative consequences
Impulse Control Disorders and Addiction
While some doctors now believe behavioral addictions can include a wide range of behaviors such as playing video games or exercising compulsively, there are several behaviors that have specifically been identified in the DSM-IV-TR. These behavior disorders are called impulse control disorders; however, their diagnosis tends to mirror an addiction definition.3
Impulse control disorders include kleptomania (compulsion to steal), pyromania (compulsion to set fires), gambling and others.
Last Updated: 20 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD