What is addiction?
Addiction is a chronic health condition that occurs when someone is unable to stop consuming a drug or activity, even if it is causing physical or psychological harm, or interfering with everyday life. Addiction is commonly associated with alcohol, tobacco, other drugs (illicit and prescription) and gambling.
As with other chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma, treatment for addiction generally isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed with the right support. Treatment and support for people affected by addiction is there to help people achieve recovery, improve quality of life and reduce vulnerability to relapse.
Why do people become addicted?
Many people don’t understand why or how people become addicted to drugs or behaviours. It can be mistakenly believed that people experiencing addiction lack moral principles or willpower and could stop simply if they chose to. In reality, addiction is complex and managing addiction takes much more than good intentions or a strong will.
Multiple factors can combine to influence someone's risk of developing an addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the higher the risk of an addiction developing. Some of these factors include:
Our personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, genetic makeup and experiencing other health issues can influence risk for addiction.
A person's environment includes our quality of life, connection to family and friends, economic status and culture. Experiencing peer pressure, abuse, neglect, early exposure to drugs, stress and isolation can greatly affect a person’s risk of developing an addiction.
Although addiction can occur at any age, earlier drug use or exposure to addictive behaviours can put a person at greater risk of becoming addicted. This is because areas in our brains that control decision-making, judgement and self-control are still developing in young people.
Characteristics of drugs and addictive behaviours
Most drugs and addictive behaviours affect the brain’s "reward circuit", causing euphoria or a "high". As addiction continues the brain adapts by reducing the ability of the reward circuit to respond, resulting in a reduced high compared to how the drug or addictive behaviour was first experienced. This is called tolerance, and can also cause people to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if consumption of the addictive drug or activity is stopped or reduced.
These brain adaptations often lead to a person consuming more of a drug or addictive activity, to try and get the same high and avoid withdrawal. Over time this can reduce a person’s ability to feel pleasure from other things they once enjoyed (such as food, social activities and relationships), and result in loss of control.
Addiction in Australia
If you or someone you know is affected by addiction, you are not alone.
Data from the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) has identified that 11 per cent of Australians smoke tobacco daily, 25 per cent drink alcohol at a risky level on a single occasion at least monthly, and more than 2 in 5 Australians have used an illicit drug in their lifetime. In addition, 4.2 per cent of Australians will use prescription medication for non-medical purposes in a year.
Is support available?
The good news is that addiction is treatable, and there is free treatment and support available that can help.
We understand that the stigma associated with addiction can make it difficult for people to reach out. If you are affected by addiction a great place to start is talking to one of our counsellors.
Counselling Online is free, confidential and available 24/7 to provide a safe and anonymous and space for people affected by addiction to receive guidance about next steps. Our counsellors are positive, judgement-free and able to connect you with treatment and support so that starting your recovery journey can feel far less daunting and achievable.
You can also chat with people with similar experiences on the Counselling Online forum.
If you would like to know a bit more about the service before getting in contact — take a look through Find support.
Learn more about addiction
- Read about signs of a problem.
- Learn more about the impacts of addiction.
- Or you may want to learn more about understanding and managing cravings.