Addiction is a primary, progressive, chronic, and potentially fatal disease characterized by:

  • a physical sensitivity to excessive externally or internally induced biochemical imbalances, causing
  • unusually strong mood changes and other emotional volatility, and
  • mental obsession, poor judgment, and other mental mismanagement that support the continuance of the disease, and
  • a spiritual isolation that effectively blocks outside help and guidance, resulting in a self-centered lifestyle.

And yes, that is another model, which may help explain addiction, and may also miss the mark occasionally.


Alcoholism is probably the best known, although not necessarily the most common, addiction. It is not just addiction to alcohol, but to the biochemistry that results when alcohol is ingested.

Prescription Drugs

Depressants, analgesics (painkillers), tranquilizers, stimulants, and many other prescription drugs can produce an addicted biochemistry.

Street Drugs

Illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD, and “designer drugs” are powerful biochemical agents that can dramatically change the body’s neurochemistry, often producing addiction.


Nicotine and other chemicals in tobacco share with crack cocaine the dubious distinction of being the most physically addicting substances currently known. Tobacco is probably society’s most costly addiction, each year killing perhaps three times as many people as alcoholism.


Caffeine is a stimulant drug that can easily produce addiction. It stimulates Various cravings and exaggerates certain processes mood-altering capabilities (see the sugar-insulin-serotonin reaction under the module Sugar).


Gambling can be understood as an addiction to excitement. It is probably an addiction to an excess of catecholamines, like dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and other neurotransmitters, which are biochemicals that are produced when we become excited or afraid.


Spending also may be an excitement addiction. Compulsive spenders tend to flirt with danger, whether from shoplifting, passing bad checks, or facing the wrath of their spouse.


The most powerful relationship addictions seem grounded in excitement, as “women who love too much” (Norwood, 1985) continually get themselves into physically or emotionally dangerous situations.


The powerful biochemistry associated with sex alters mood and motivates us as few other substances can. Although this is necessary for preservation of the species, excessive sexual behavior can become a full-fledged addiction.


What is called “workaholism” is probably several things, some of which include addiction. Those who must work long hours in minimum-wage jobs to support a large family may see no alternative. Someone who works long hours because there is conflict at home may be addicted to work, or may simply be avoiding a painful situation. People with low self-esteem who get most of their self-worth from work are not necessarily work-addicted. Genuine work addiction seems to involve addiction to the power associated with certain high-intensity jobs, or with the excitement and danger the work provides.


As we have already seen, many addictions include the biochemistry of excitement as a part of or often most of the addiction process. You may know people who get into trouble for driving too fast, or literally risking their lives for adventure. Excitement may also play an addictive role in crime, including theft, murder, family violence, and incest.

Identifying Addiction

It is easy to recognize alcoholism in a skid row drunk, or food addiction in someone who weighs more than 500 pounds. But these are extremes; we would like to recognize addiction before it becomes a threat to survival itself.

The most common way to identify addiction is by looking at consequences that seem way out of scale with what we accept as normal. People who have lost jobs, been convicted of DUIs, or wrecked cars because of drinking are hardly paying a reasonable price for their “recreational” use of the drug alcohol.

Many people are well into addiction before they experience clearly unreasonable consequences. It may be easier to identify addiction by the struggle required to maintain an illusion of control. For example, elaborate and excessive measures to control your weight can suggest food addiction, though you are not overweight, and seldom binge or purge, at least in classical definitions.


One characteristic of addiction is that over time things tend to get worse. This means not only the physical aspects of tolerance and the breakdown of the body’s immune system but a progressive emotional, mental, and spiritual deterioration.


When you begin to believe the lies and half-truths you have been telling others to cover your addiction, you fall prey to delusion. You start making decisions based on the way you would like things to be, rather than how they are. You are operating in fantasy rather than reality, with predictable results.

Addiction, see also: Abstinence, Addiction model (PEMS), Alcoholism, Allergies, Arousal, Binge history, Biochemistry, Chronic pain, Codependency, Counseling, Disease concept, Drugs, Excitement, Impaired professionals, Intervention, Moderation, Moodifiers, PEMS model, Powerlessness, Progression, Recovery, Step One, Therapy & treatment.

Updated 1 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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