Process of Addiction


Any activity, substance, object, or behavior that has become the major focus of a person's life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally, or socially is considered an addictive behavior. A person can become addicted, dependent, or compulsively obsessed with anything. Some researchers imply that there are similarities between physical addiction to various chemicals, such as alcohol and heroin, and psychological dependence to activities such as compulsive gambling, sex, work, running, shopping, or eating disorders. It is thought that these behavior activities may produce beta-endorphins in the brain, which makes the person feel "high." Some experts suggest that if a person continues to engage in the activity to achieve this feeling of well-being and euphoria, he/she may get into an addictive cycle. In so doing, he/she becomes physically addicted to his/her own brain chemicals, thus leading to continuation of the behavior even though it may have negative health or social consequences. Others feel that these are just bad habits.

Most physical addictions to substances such as alcohol, heroin, or barbiturates also have a psychological component. For example, an alcoholic who has not used alcohol for years may still crave a drink. Thus some researchers feel that we need to look at both physical and psychological dependencies upon a variety of substances, activities, and behaviors as an addictive process and as addictive behaviors. They suggest that all of these behaviors have a host of commonalities that make them more similar to, than different from, each other and that they should not be divided into separate diseases, categories, or problems.

Common Characteristics Among Addictive Behaviors
There are many common characteristics among the various addictive behaviors:

  • The person becomes obsessed (constantly thinks of) the object, activity, or substance.
  • They will seek it out, or engage in the behavior even though it is causing harm (physical problems, poor work or study performance, problems with friends, family, fellow workers).
  • The person will compulsively engage in the activity, that is, do the activity over and over even if he/she does not want to and find it difficult to stop.
  • Upon cessation of the activity, withdrawal symptoms often occur. These can include irritability, craving, restlessness or depression.
  • The person does not appear to have control as to when, how long, or how much he or she will continue the behavior (loss of control). (They drink 6 beers when they only wanted one, buy 8 pairs of shoes when they only needed a belt, ate the whole box of cookies, etc).
  • He/she often denies problems resulting from his/her engagement in the behavior, even though others can see the negative effects.
  • Person hides the behavior after family or close friends have mentioned their concern (hides food under beds, alcohol bottles in closets, doesn't show spouse credit card bills, etc).
  • Many individuals with addictive behaviors report a blackout for the time they were engaging in the behavior (don't remember how much or what they bought, how much the lost gambling, how many miles they ran on a sore foot, what they did at the party when drinking)
  • Depression is common in individuals with addictive behaviors. That is why it is important to make an appointment with a physician to find out what is going on.
  • Individuals with addictive behaviors often have low self-esteem, feel anxious if they do not have control over their environment, and come from psychologically or physically abusive families.

The Progression of Addiction
The progression of an addiction reflects a continuum, ranging from no use to dependency. People may move back and forth within this continuum, but generally they advance from no use, to use, misuse, abuse, and finally to dependency. Once a person is dependent, they may have to stay abstinent from all substances and/or gambling, to get their health back.


In this stage there is no use of alcohol, other drugs, or gambling. People have their own reasons not to be involved, including religious beliefs, their age, etc.


People begin to experiment with alcohol, other drugs, or gambling to see what it is like, or to fit in with friends and peers. They may use a substance or gamble to enhance an already pleasurable experience. Some people argue that social use is not merely using in social situations. Rather, it is using in a responsible way. There are few if any negative consequences to social use. Social use does not include youth under age 18 who drink alcohol, or anyone who uses illegal drugs. Using under those circumstances can result in negative legal or parental consequences.


A person begins to experience problems associated with their use of alcohol, other drugs, or gambling. They may get hangovers, get in trouble at home or school because they were drunk or high, spend more money than they intended to on gambling, or do something they regret while under the influence of alcohol or another drug. All these problems, although they may seem small at the time, can escalate into a much larger problem.


Problems become much more regular. The person uses or gambles more frequently and it begins to interfere with major areas of their life such as family, parents, school, legal issues, money, friends, and leisure. The person may become obsessive about when and where they are going to get drugs or money to gamble.


The person at this stage has lost the ability to choose to use or not to use. Using substances or gambling has become a way of life. They continue despite the negative consequences and those consequences are occurring more and more frequently. The person may experience physical or psychological withdrawal, cravings, and decreased physical, mental, and emotional health.