Addictions are relatively common. For example, nicotine is a major addiction in Canada, with about 15% of Canadians smoking regularly. For more information about smoking, see our smoking channel.
So what is an addiction? An addiction is something that is hard to stop even though it is interfering with your life. You can be addicted to substances such as alcohol or drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroine, morphine, nicotine), or to activities such as eating, gambling, shopping, video games, or sex.
Although all experts don't agree on the exact definition of addiction, an addiction is usually present if:
- you have an intense desire or need for a substance or activity
- you can't stop using a substance (e.g., alcohol, drugs) or can't stop an activity (e.g., gambling)
- you can’t control the amount or frequency of using a substance or doing an activity
- you continue to use the substance or participate in the activity despite the harm it is causing you (e.g., financial, work, health, or family problems)
If you think you might have an issue with addiction, make an appointment with your doctor or with an addiction counsellor so you can be properly assessed.
Addiction causes and risk factors
There is no single cause of addiction and it can be hard to figure out why some people become addicted and others don't. Researches believe that there are several factors that can influence the development of addiction.
Genetics: There appears to be a genetic link to addiction. If your parents or other family members have struggled with or are struggling with addiction, you have a higher chance of developing an addiction too. But keep in mind that there are other factors that affect the development of addiction.
Your brain: Substances and activities that are associated with addiction all increase the levels of a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain. Dopamine activates the pleasure and reward areas of the brain, making you feel positive and good. Because these feelings are pleasurable, you want to repeat the behaviour that created the feeling.
Childhood experiences: Some traumatic childhood experience (e.g., emotional, physical, or sexual abuse) can trigger addiction when people seek comfort or an escape from the pain of past experiences. Young adults also may have friends who use alcohol and other drugs, and peer influence can lead to experimenting with addictive substances.
Mental health: Addiction is more common in people with other mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. It is thought that people with mental health issues use addictive substances or activities to help them feel better, but in fact, the opposite happens.
Stress and coping with feelings: Some people may turn to substances or activities to relieve stress or help them cope with certain situations and feelings. Feelings of not belonging as a result of race, gender, or ethnicity can cause people to turn to addictive substances for relief.
Addiction can also be influence by poverty and not doing well in school (either academically or socially).
One thing researchers know for sure: addiction is not caused by personal weakness or lack of willpower.
There are also factors that can help protect you from the pitfalls of addiction. These factors include:
- having positive role models such as parents, teachers, or family friends
- having a supportive and involved family
- having strong connections with schools and your community
- having plans for the future
- being involved in sports and other activities (e.g., music, dance)
- being involved in the community (e.g., volunteering)
Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team