What is Addiction? Definition, Signs, Causes, Consequences

People use drugs or alcohol to escape, relax, or reward themselves. Over time they can make you believe that you need them to enjoy life, or that you can’t cope without them, which can gradually lead to dependence and addiction.

Addiction and the Brain Video (6 Min)


Signs of Addiction

An addiction has two basic qualities:

  1. You sometimes use more than you would like to use. For example, one drink leads to more drinks, or one line of cocaine leads to more.
  2. You continue to use despite negative consequences. For example, you continue to drink even though it has hurt your relationships.

Definition of Addiction

An addiction must meet at least 3 of the following criteria. This is based on the criteria of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) and World Health Organization (ICD-10).[1]

  1. Tolerance. Do you use more alcohol or drugs over time?
  2. Withdrawal. Have you experienced physical or emotional withdrawal when you have stopped using? Have you experienced anxiety, irritability, shakes, sweats, nausea, or vomiting? Emotional withdrawal is just as significant as physical withdrawal.
  3. Limited control. Do you sometimes drink or use drugs more than you would like? Do you sometimes drink to get drunk? Does one drink lead to more drinks sometimes? Do you ever regret how much you used the day before?
  4. Negative consequences. Have you continued to use even though there have been negative consequences to your mood, self-esteem, health, job, or family?
  5. Neglected or postponed activities. Have you ever put off or reduced social, recreational, work, or household activities because of your use?
  6. Significant time or energy spent. Have you spent a significant amount of time obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from your use? Have you spent a lot of time thinking about using? Have you ever concealed or minimized your use? Have you ever thought of schemes to avoid getting caught?
  7. Desire to cut down. Have you sometimes thought about cutting down or controlling your use? Have you ever made unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control your use?

Addiction Test

Free online tests for addiction, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

Stages of Addiction

There are different stages of addictions. The early stage is the functioning individual with addiction. They still have a job and their relationships are intact, but their life is suffering because of their addiction. That is the most common scenario. You don't have to suffer major losses to have an addiction.

The late stage of addiction is the non-functioning addict. They've lost their job and have to use every day. It's what people think addiction is like, but that stereotype is rare.

The consequences of addiction get worse over time. Addiction is a progressive disease. It's never easy to quit. But if you've already suffered negative consequences and don't want them to get worse, there's never a better time to quit than now.

How Common is Addiction?

Approximately 10% of any population is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addiction is more common than diabetes, which occurs in approximately 7% of the population.

Addiction crosses all socio-economic boundaries. 10% of teachers, 10% of plumbers, and 10% of CEOs have an addiction.

The terms alcohol addiction, alcoholism, and dependence are all equivalent. Different terms have been used over time in an attempt to overcome the stigma of addiction.

Causes of Addiction

  • Family history. About 50-60 percent of addiction is due to genetic factors
  • Poor coping skills for dealing with stress.
  • Negative thinking, such as an all-or-nothing approach to life.
  • Underlying anxiety or depression.

Family History

Genetics explains 50 percent of whether an individual will develop an addiction.[2, 3]

This is proven with twin studies. When one identical twin is addicted to alcohol, the other twin has a high probability of being addicted. But when one non-identical twin is addicted to alcohol, the other twin does not necessarily have an addiction. Based on the differences between the identical and non-identical twins, studies have shown that 50-60 percent of addiction is due to genetic factors.

Poor Coping Skills for Stress

Stress is an important risk factor in addiction. It is especially important in the transition from moderate drug use to dependent drug abuse.[4]

Stress is a risk factor for a few reasons. First, the more stressed you are, the more you will want to escape or relax, and that is why people turn to drugs or alcohol. Second, when you are stressed, you tend to do what is familiar and wrong instead of what is new and right, therefore you are more likely to fall back to your old ways.

Negative Thinking

All the different types of negative thinking make you feel stressed, uncomfortable, irritable, and discontent. When you think in an all-or-nothing way, you see your life as either going perfectly or horribly, you see your options as either good or terrible. Feeling like that makes you want to escape, relax, or reward yourself, which can lead to drug or alcohol use.

Underlying Anxiety or Depression

Approximately 15 to 30 percent of people with addiction also suffer from underlying depression.[5, 6] The combination is sometimes called a dual diagnosis. Anxiety and depression can lead to addiction. Addiction can also cause anxiety and depression. People who have a dual diagnosis often use drugs and alcohol to escape the feelings of anxiety and depression. They have a repeating pattern of staying sober for a while and then relapsing when the feelings become overwhelming and they try to escape them.

Consequences of Addiction

People only stop using drugs and alcohol when they have suffered enough negative consequences. When you've suffered enough pain and enough regret you are ready to stop.

You are ready to stop when the two sides of addiction collide. On the one hand, addiction feels so good that you want to use more. On the other hand, addiction leads to negative consequences. After a while, something has got to give.

You don't have to hit rock bottom. The purpose of websites like this is to show you the potential negative consequences of addiction so that you will be ready to quit before you've lost everything. You can imagine what it would be like to hit rock bottom. And that can help motivate you.

The most important consequences of addiction are social, emotional, and psychological. People usually think of the physical and economic consequences of addiction. "I don't have a serious addiction because my health is fine, and I haven't lost my job." But those are very late stage consequences.

As far as work is concerned that's usually the last thing to suffer. You need your work in order to pay your bills, so that you can continue your addiction. When your work begins to suffer, you've slipped from being a functioning addict to a non-functioning addict.

The damage addiction does to your relationships and self-esteem is far deeper and takes longer to repair. You've hurt friends and family. You've disappointed yourself. You've traded important things in your life so that you could make more time to use. You've lived a double life. You've seen the hurt in your family's eyes, and the disappointment in your children's faces. Those are the consequences that can motivate you to begin recovery.

Cost of Addiction

The dollars and cents cost of addiction is mind boggling. At least twice as many people die from alcoholism in the US every year as die from motor vehicle accidents.[7]

Alcohol intoxication is associated with 40-50% of traffic fatalities, 25-35% of nonfatal motor vehicle injuries, and 64% of fires. Alcohol is present in nearly 50% of homicides, either in the victim or the perpetrator.[8]

Alcohol intoxication is involved in 31% of fatal injuries, and 23% of completed suicides.[9]

One study found that 86 % of homicide offenders, 37 % of assault offenders, and 57 % of men and 27 % of women involved in marital violence were drinking at the time of their offense.[10]

More Mental Health Information …

The book “I Want to Change My Life.” contains more information on how to overcome anxiety, depression, and addiction.


  1. DSM stands for The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. ICD stands for The International Classification of Disease, published by the World Health Organization.
  2. Prescott, C. A., & Kendler, K. S., Genetic and environmental contributions to alcohol abuse and dependence in a population-based sample of male twins. Am J Psychiatry, 1999. 156(1): p. 34-40.
  3. Enoch, M. A., & Goldman, D., The genetics of alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Curr Psychiatry Rep, 2001. 3(2): p. 144-51.
  4. Schwabe, L., Dickinson, A., & Wolf, O. T., Stress, habits, and drug addiction: a psychoneuroendocrinological perspective. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol, 2011. 19(1): p. 53-63.
  5. Schuckit, M. A., Tipp, J. E., Bergman, M., Reich, W., et al., Comparison of induced and independent major depressive disorders in 2,945 alcoholics. Am J Psychiatry, 1997. 154(7): p. 948-57.
  6. Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., Merikangas, K. R., et al., Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2005. 62(6): p. 617-27. PMC2847357.
  7. Mokdad, A. H., Marks, J. S., Stroup, D. F., & Gerberding, J. L., Actual causes of death in the United States, 2000. JAMA, 2004. 291(10): p. 1238-45.
  8. Lowenfels, A. B., & Miller, T. T., Alcohol and trauma. Ann Emerg Med, 1984. 13(11): p. 1056-60.
  9. Smith, G. S., Branas, C. C., & Miller, T. R., Fatal nontraffic injuries involving alcohol: A metaanalysis. Ann Emerg Med, 1999. 33(6): p. 659-68.
  10. Roizen, J., Epidemiological issues in alcohol-related violence. Recent Dev Alcohol, 1997. 13: p. 7-40.
Last Modified:July 12, 2021