Addiction is generally defined as any act that a person compulsively and repeatedly takes part in. Though it is typically used in association with alcohol and substance abuse, the term has widened to include other compulsions such as shopping, gambling and overeating. Depending on the type of addiction, the sufferer will experience either physical dependence or psychological dependence, or both.

Doctors disagree as to the exact distinctions between addiction and physical dependence, especially between different fields of study such as pharmacology, psychiatry and general medicine. The medical community carefully distinguishes physical dependence as being characterized by symptoms of withdrawal, while psychological dependence can be interchanged with the word addiction. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is moving away from the word altogether, using ‘dependency’ in all cases.

It used to be that medical practitioners used addiction or dependency strictly to describe a reaction to a substance that crossed the blood-brain barrier and thus caused changes in the brain’s natural chemical balance. This would include tobacco, alcohol, opiates and other drugs. Conventionalists would contend that psychological dependency to food, sex, pornography, gambling, work, self-harm, exercise or spending should not be referred to as addictions in this classic sense, but should rather be defined as different types of behavioral disorders.

In recent years, contrary to these long-held beliefs, studies have shown that the compulsive behaviors mentioned above may actually cause the hypothalamus to create peptides that mimic the effect of ingested chemicals, causing actual physical withdrawal when these actions are discontinued abruptly. For example, a person who compulsively shoplifts experiences a flood of endorphins when they satisfy their habit, reinforcing positive associations with the behavior. Later, in the wake of such an experience, the individual craves the chemical rush again and may experience depression, insomnia, irritable mood or other withdrawal symptoms if they don’t act on that craving.

Initially, an individual engages an addictive substance or behavior because of its ability to induce feelings of pleasure. However, once the line has been crossed into compulsion, the motivation to use a substance or behavior is driven instead by the anxietycreated in its absence. The addict will often find ways to justify their addictive behaviors once they begin to threaten the integrity of other aspects of their life, asserting, for example, that the addiction is a necessary part and contributes to other aspects of their life, is still pleasurable or just a “little” habit—all to avoid the emotions or physical withdrawal that is masked by the behavior.

Genetics is thought to play a major role in who becomes addicted to what, determining how sensitive a person is to a substance or whether or not one will attach themselves to a particular pleasurable experience.

For those with serious drug or alcohol addiction, a period of rehabilitation is often necessary in order to remove accessibility to addictive substances and receive treatment. Cost-free support groups are available for those coping with both chemical dependency and behavioral addictions. Many of these support groups follow the 12-Step model, which has been shown to have incredible success in helping individuals come to terms with their addictive tendencies. 12-step programs include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Schizophrenics Anonymous (SA), Emotions Anonymous (EA), Overeaters Anonymous (OA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA).

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