Addictions Health Center

Traditionally, addiction would refer to a person's physical and psychological dependence on a mind altering substance, such as alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. More recently, mental health care providers have expanded the definition to include any substance or behavior which a person engages in repeatedly, despite negative consequences to their health, social life, or personal relationships.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine expands the definition further, stating that addiction is a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry […] characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

In recent years, the expanded definition of addiction allows people to be considered addicted to several behaviors besides drug and alcohol use, such as gambling, food, sex, pornography, exercise, and the internet, among others. While these behavioral addictions may not as strongly alter the chemical reward centers in the brain to the same extent as drugs or alcohol do, research suggests that similar processes are occurring. Research strongly suggests that there is a genetic component to addictions, as well as an environmental component (access to addictive materials).

Some people who have an addiction may be able to stop on their own, but most will need help. Although treatment may be different for different behaviors, it usually will involve some form or combination of counseling, behavioral therapies, self-help groups or medical treatment. 

Review Date: 
March 13, 2012
Last Updated:
June 28, 2013