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What is Drug Addiction?

pile of pills

Drug addiction is a commonly used term that describes an impaired ability to limit drug use, despite the harmful consequences of continued use.  In this respect, drug meets the definition of addiction. In our topic center on addiction, we define addiction:

Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.

Drug addiction is not a diagnostic term recognized by American Psychiatric Association.  The correct diagnostic term would be substance disorder.   The process of diagnosing drug addiction is discussed here.

Like all addictions, the severity of drug addiction may range from mild to severe.  Unfortunately, many pe...More

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What is drug addiction?

  • Drug addiction is a commonly used term that describes an impaired ability to limit drug use, despite the harmful consequences of continued use. In this respect, drug meets the definition of addiction.
  • In our topic center on addiction, we define addiction as the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.
  • Drug addiction is not a diagnostic term recognized by American Psychiatric Association. The correct diagnostic term would be substance disorder. The process of diagnosing drug addiction is discussed here.
  • Like all addictions, the severity of drug addiction may range from mild to severe. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe they do not need to be concerned about their drug use because they do not consider themselves "an addict." In other words, people sometimes fail to recognize the substantial harm caused by their repeated and continued use of drugs.

For more information on identifying the many possible ways that drug use may be harmful to someone.

What causes drug addiction?

  • There is no one single cause of drug addiction. Instead, there are multiple causes that can be grouped into four basic categories.
  • These four categories are: 1) biological causes, 2) psychological causes, 3) socio-cultural causes, and 4) spiritual causes. Psychologists call this the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Model of addiction.
  • The biological causes of drug addiction include each person's unique physiology and genetics.
  • Psychologically, people learn to anticipate some benefit from using drugs even though it is harmful. These benefits can include: 1) stress reduction, 2) relief from boredom, 3) pleasurable sensations, 4) coping with negative feelings or situations, or 4) simply the benefit of avoiding withdrawal symptoms.
  • Socio-cultural influences also contribute to the development of drug addiction as it affords opportunities for pleasing social discourse and interaction.
  • Spirituality is another causal factor that can determine whether an addiction develops and flourishes.

For more information

What are the signs and symptoms of drug addiction?

  • The diagnosis of a substance use disorder is based upon a pathological set of behaviors related to substance use. These behaviors fall into four main categories:
    • Impaired control - 1) Using for longer periods of time than intended, or using larger amounts than intended; 2) Wanting to reduce use, yet being unsuccessful doing so; 3) Spending excessive time getting/using/recovering from the use; 4) Cravings that are so intense it is difficult to think about anything else.
    • Social impairment - 1) People may continue to use despite problems with work, school or family/social obligations; 2) Someone continues to use despite having interpersonal problems because of that use; 3) Important and meaningful social and recreational activities may be given up or reduced because of use.
    • Risky use - 1) someone repeatedly uses substances in physically dangerous situations; 2) Some people continue to use substances even though they are aware it is causing or worsening physical and psychological problems.
    • Pharmacological indicators (tolerance and withdrawal) - 1) Tolerance occurs when people need to increase the amount of drugs to achieve the same desired effect; 2) Withdrawal is the body's response to the abrupt cessation of a drug, once the body has developed a tolerance to it.

For more information

How is drug addiction treated?

  • There are four basic approaches to drug addiction treatment: Biological, Psychological, Socio-Cultural, and Spiritual.
  • People can combine these various approaches to match their individual needs and circumstances as they work to develop their own individualized, custom-tailored approach to recovery.
  • Biological approaches to addictions treatment attempt to correct or modify the presumed underlying biological causes of addiction. According to biological models of addiction, a "broken" or damaged brain causes addiction.
  • Psychological approaches to recovery aim to increase a person's motivation for change.
  • In addition to changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, individuals embracing recovery may also need to restructure their social world.
  • Strengthening the motivation for recovery is very helpful. One such approach is called Motivational Interviewing.
  • There are also several effective types of psychotherapy for addictions. These are: Relapse Prevention Therapy; Contingency Management; Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy; Dialectical Behavioral Therapy; Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
  • Socio-cultural approaches to addictions recovery emphasize the important influence of social groups on individuals as they attempt to recover. These include: 1) harm reduction strategies such as needle exchange programs, or public campaigns such as designated drivers, 2) family approaches to addictions treatment, and 3) the social support approach to addictions treatment.
  • Spiritual approaches to recovery are based on research that has repeatedly demonstrated that spirituality can have a positive effect on recovery from many diseases and disorders. The most well-known spiritual approaches to addictions recovery are the 12-step support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

For more information


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