What is addiction?

‘Addiction’ can mean many things to many people, but in general it refers to repeatedly using a substance (such as drugs) or engaging in an activity (such as gambling) for pleasure, even though doing so causes harm or interferes with everyday life.

This can help if:

  • you want to know what ‘addiction’ means

  • you want to know the signs of addiction

  • you think that you or someone you know might have an addiction.

POV playing video game

Types of addiction

Addiction is basically a compulsion to use a certain substance or to behave in a certain way in order to feel good (or sometimes to stop feeling really bad). Addiction falls into two main categories: physical and psychological.

Physical addiction

This is when your body becomes dependent on a particular substance. It also often means that you’ve developed a tolerance for the substance, so you have to take more of it to continue to feel the effects. If you have a physical addiction, you’ll experience strong symptoms of withdrawal when you try to give it up. Examples of physical addiction are drug and alcohol dependence, including cigarettes and prescription painkillers.

Psychological addiction

This is when your craving for a substance or a behaviour comes from an emotional or psychological desire, rather than from a physical dependence. Your brain is so powerful that it can produce physical symptoms like those of withdrawal, including cravings, irritability and insomnia. Examples of psychological addictions include gambling, gaming, exercise, internet, shopping, sex and overeating.

Signs of addiction

A number of generic signs may indicate that you’re addicted to a substance or behaviour.

  • You need to use more of a substance, or to do an activity more often, to get the same effect.

  • You’ve become reliant on a substance or activity as a way to forget your problems or to relax.

  • You’re withdrawing from family and friends.

  • It’s causing you problems with school or work.

  • You’re stealing or selling stuff in order to keep doing it (such as drugs or gambling)

  • You’ve been unsuccessful in trying to quit.

  • You feel anxious, angry or depressed.

Getting help for an addiction

If you think you have an addiction to a substance or a behaviour, you should seek professional help. Talking to your GP is a good place to start. If you’re embarrassed or nervous about discussing your behaviour with them, remember that they’re obligated to keep anything you say confidential. Besides, there isn’t anything they won’t have heard before!

What can I do now?

  • Talk to your GP to learn more about addiction and about how to get help.

  • Get personalised support options for addiction with the ReachOut NextStep tool.

  • Be careful about replacing one addiction with another.