A young man playing video games with his eyes glued to the screen.
When does a vice become an addiction?Image by: Movember
A young man playing video games with his eyes glued to the screen.
29 June 2023

What are addictions?

5 minutes read time

Admit it. We all overindulge once in a while.

That second serving of chips? That extra drink? The weekend spent playing that one game you can’t put down? Sure, you might feel a twinge of guilt afterwards. But done in moderation, most indulgences hopefully don't lead to much damage.

So, what happens when that overindulgence becomes a problem? At what point does a vice become an addiction? And more importantly, what can you do about it?

What is addiction?

An addiction is when you're into something that brings you pleasure – but you can't stop doing it, even when it causes problems. Addiction is about doing more of something, or doing something for longer, even though it can cause serious problems. In medical circles, it's known as a "compulsive behaviour" – specifically, behaviour that you have a hard time controlling through "willpower". Unfortunately, addiction is often seen as a moral failure – that anyone with an addiction should just be able to stop. But, in fact, addiction is a mental health issue and should be supported in the same way we would support any other mental health issue – with compassion.

Addictions can take many forms. They can come from something we consume, like drugs or sugary foods – or they can come from things that trigger emotional responses, like gambling or porn.

Regardless of what form they take, addictions have two things in common:

  • They trigger intense releases of chemicals in the brain that we experience as pleasure and enjoyment.
  • When they take over part of your life, they can mess up your relationships, your health, your finances, and make it tough to enjoy the things you love doing.

Why is addiction a problem?

Addiction is a complex issue that, as mentioned, ultimately comes down to brain chemistry. While the finer details of the brain's inner workings are mind-boggling (and we're not going to try and explain them here), it's fair to say that repeated, pleasurable behaviour can lead to a cycle where the brain craves the sensation of pleasure more and more intensely.

However, the more you indulge in the behaviour, the less pleasurable it can feel over time, and therefore the more you crave it. This is when things can come unstuck, because even though you may know that something isn't good for you or those around you, you might struggle to stop.

The consequences of not being able to hold back are what cause problems. For example, the physical health problems like weight gain from overindulging in junk food, or the long-term effects of smoking like shortness of breath or even lung cancer.

Addictions can also strain relationships. They might lead to intense feelings of shame from hiding an addiction, anger , arguments, or even the loss of friends and family.

Addictions can make it harder to enjoy things you once liked doing. They can also have severe legal and financial consequences (such as gambling debt) – and in severe cases, even injury or death.

How to get help for addiction?

An addiction can be beaten. Coming to grips with the fact that something is wrong is often the first step towards feeling like your old self again.

It's always a good idea to talk it out with a professional. Check out your local helplines and services if you need someone non-judgemental who is there to listen.

Your family doctor or GP is another excellent starting point. A good doctor will treat an addiction like any other mental health issue. They can refer you to a counsellor or other professional, as well as recovery programmes and support groups. You might have heard of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous – support exists for pretty much any kind of addiction.

Beating addiction is a steady process. One reason is that, as almost anyone who's tried to quit smoking will tell you, tackling addiction is often a double whammy fight.

You probably know that many addictions come with physical withdrawal symptoms. With smoking, for instance, cravings are the obvious one, along with commonly recorded feelings like restless, sleeplessness, trouble concentrating, headaches, coughing, and so on.

However, things can get hard on the emotional front too. Remember what we said about addiction and chemicals in the brain?

To simplify an otherwise enormously complex issue, beating an addiction means going through life without relying on the substances or activity that triggers feelings of pleasure.

It's one reason why people who genuinely want to beat an addiction often start with the best intentions – but then fall off the wagon, often when something stressful happens (stress here can mean a wide range of feelings, including boredom, loneliness, or peer pressure).

A large part of tackling an addiction is learning how to cope better (called coping mechanisms) in stressful situations – without falling back on the addictive substance or activity that releases chemical in the brain. It's learning to cope with situations in new ways, and it's why so many people fall off the horse in the early stages of overcoming an addiction.

This is very common. It's also why quitting is easier if you have a support network, have realistic goals, and are prepared for challenges.

How to help someone living with addiction?

If someone in your life is struggling with addiction, then it's important to take action – and sooner, not later.

One of the biggest problems with addictions is that people living with them might be reluctant to tackle the issue.

Why? Well, the simple answer is "it's complicated". Many types of addiction are marked by stigma. People living with addiction may feel embarrassed or ashamed, and they might try to hide or downplay things. The fact that they know there's a repeated problem they can't control just compounds those feelings.

It might also be that someone genuinely isn't aware that they have a problem. They may not have come to terms with the nature of their addiction and how to tackle it. They may also fear what life might be like without the substance or behaviour that helps them feel good.

As mentioned, an addiction is often a sign that something else is going on. If you're worried that a friend or family member is struggling with addiction, you can start a conversation with them. Movember's Spot the Signs has loads of tips and advice for what to do if you notice someone's struggling.

It's all about opening up a non-judgemental conversation about how they're feeling – remember, ‘interventions’ don’t work. Compassion and support does. We also recommend Movember Conversations, an interactive tool to practice having important chats. Written by experts, it's not just about initiating tricky conversations – it's a useful resource that shows you what to do next and steers you both in the right direction once someone opens up. For instance, how do you talk to someone who is withdrawing or obsessing?

Talking it out is one of the best ways to help someone who is struggling with addiction. Showing them that you've got their back will encourage them to get the help they need – and brings them closer to recovery.