For decades addiction has been recognised as an illness. The addicted person tries to avoid, or anaesthetise the way that they feel by using a substance or behaviour in a compulsive attempt to avoid their emotions. An individual may be addicted to drugs (street or prescription), or alcohol, gambling, shopping, sex and/or relationships, exercise, work, or they may have an obsession with food (which can manifest itself as bulimia, orthorexia nervosa or compulsive over eating).
Many of these activities (such as work, exercise, consumerism, and alcohol) are socially acceptable and socially reinforced. Problems occur when an individual makes any of the above activities the prime focus of their life to the exclusion of other activities. Any activity, substance, object, or behaviour that has become the centre of a person’s life, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally, or socially is considered an addictive behaviour.
Common Characteristics of addictive behaviours:
There are many common characteristics among the various addictive behaviours. To begin with the individual will become obsessed with the substance, activity or behaviour, making it their prime focus to the exclusion of everything else. Even when the substance, activity or behaviour causes them or others distress or harm, they will continue with their behaviours as they feel unable to stop and have lost the element of control.
An individual will continue to cause harm to themselves and others and continue, even if they no longer want to. At this point an individual can be thought of as being powerless over their addiction, and even if they want to stop and try to stop they may experience withdrawal symptoms, including physical cravings, depression and anxiety. The person may feel increasingly distressed and have severe health problems, financial, legal or social problems, and still feel unable to stop the behaviour that is causing them and others harm and distress.
The addicted individual may feel great shame and guilt over their behaviour and may lie about the behaviour or try to hide the behaviour from family and friends. Denial (not admitting that they have a problem) is a common characteristic of addictive behaviours, and an individual may need help to break the denial and face up to the hurt and harm that they are causing themselves.
Whether an individual has an addiction to a substance or a behaviour, it is important to treat the illness, and not just the symptom. This is because a person can often be “cross addicted” which means that an alcoholic may also engage in compulsive shopping or compulsive overeating. Thus whilst addiction may have many different symptoms (compulsive gambling, compulsive eating, compulsive shopping or drug taking for instance), the main priority is to treat the underlying addiction and not the symptom itself.