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Definition Of Addiction

Dec 10, 2007
The word "addiction" has been tossed about so much in the media and by medical professionals to describe everything from alcoholics to overprotective parenting, that perhaps we need a new definition of addiction. This way, at least we will all have common ground to know what medical professionals and the media are talking about.

Decades ago addiction was a pharmacological term that clearly referred to the use of a tolerance-inducing drug in sufficient quantity as to cause tolerance (the requirement that greater dosages of a given drug be used to produce an identical effect as time passes). With that definition, humans (and indeed all mammals) can become addicted to various drugs quickly. Almost at the same time, a lay definition of addiction developed. This definition referred to individuals who continued to use a given drug despite their own best interest. This latter definition is now thought of as a disease state by the medical community.

The medical community now makes a careful theoretical distinction between physical dependence (characterized by symptoms of withdrawal) and psychological dependence (or simply addiction). Addiction is now narrowly defined as "uncontrolled, compulsive use"; if there is no harm being suffered by, or damage done to, the patient or another party, then clinically it may be considered compulsive, but to the definition of some it is not categorized as "addiction". In practice, the two kinds of addiction are not always easy to distinguish. Addictions often have both physical and psychological components.

DSM has the usual definition of addiction: "A physical dependency to a substance that results in withdrawal symptoms in its absence." However, this does not cover compulsive and destructive addictions such as gambling or over shopping. These are just as serious addictions for the addict (and especially the addict's family) as an alcoholic, "crack-head" or "junkie".

According to the usual definition of addiction, caffeine is the largest addiction on the planet. We do experience physical withdrawal symptoms when we are shut off from caffeine (the severity varies according to the individual). This writer, for instance, gets migraines if she doesn't have a cup of tea or a small square of chocolate every 21 hours. However, I'm able to keep my promises and hold down a job. Am I an addict?

There are many in the psychiatric field that propose and use a new definition of addiction. In this definition of addiction, addiction as seen as a coping mechanism to stress that has turned into a sick compulsion, due to a physical illness as well as emotional ones. This compulsion becomes so overwhelming in the addict's life that following it overrides everything else - family, food, finances and fundamental essentials of survival all mean nothing to the addict. They are only worried about fulfilling their compulsions, whether this is work, sex, shopping, chemicals or even playing video games.

With this new definition of addiction, we can see right away what the cause of addictions are (stress and how to cope) and hopefully can help better understand the addict and get them treatment. It is thought that there is a chemical in the brain that only runs in certain families that causes one person to become addicted and one not to be. That is still a theory, but addictions definitely run in families, whether by nature or nurture.

The addiction gives a false sense of security and control to the addict. The causes for addictions are often very complex, but it usually boils down to a feeling of worthlessness that just becomes to painful to deal with.
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