Also known as dependence

Addiction is when you no longer have control over doing, taking or using something to the point that it is causing harm to you or those around you.

Key points

  1. Addiction is a treatable condition. Recovery is possible.
  2. Addiction affects the way your brain works, leading to intense cravings for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite negative consequences.
  3. You can become addicted to anything, especially things that make you feel good or provide some sort of relief.
  4. Recovery can involve a combination of therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.
  5. You don’t have to deal with addiction on your own – there are resources, helplines, support groups, websites and counsellors available.

What is addiction?

The term addiction describes doing/taking/using something even though it cases harm to you or those around you, and you no longer have control over it. Anything you use a lot of and all the time (compulsively and obsessively) to ease tension or enhance your mood can become addictive.

Common addictions include:

  • alcohol
  • cigarettes (tobacco)
  • P (meth), cannabis and other illegal drugs
  • prescription medicines
  • gambling
  • gaming and social media
  • work and study
  • sex and porn.

Food is also considered by some people to be a source of addiction, but not everyone agrees making it a controversial topic. 

Addiction is considered a mental illness and can be treated similarly to other mental illnesses with therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.

What causes addiction?

There are lots of reasons why addictions begin. In the beginning, certain behaviours may seem harmless but over time harmful patterns of use may develop. 

It is thought that the biological processes that cause addiction involve the reward centres in your brain. When the brain finds something pleasurable, it creates a positive memory and affects its neurotransmitters (chemicals). This leads to mental and physical changes that increase the motivation to experience that pleasure again.

For an addict, these changes in your brain create an urge so powerful that you feel driven to recreate the enjoyable high and/or to escape an unpleasant comedown, no matter what the consequences.

Often, you will need more and more to achieve the high (‘tolerance’), causing the addiction to spiral out of control.

Addiction can also occur without tolerance or withdrawal and the presence of tolerance or withdrawal does not necessarily always mean addiction.

What are the signs of addiction?

The main sign of addiction is a problematic pattern of use that has a negative impact on day to day life. 

Choosing an action, behaviour or substance to the exclusion or detriment of other parts of your life is a sign of addiction.

Additions are often associated with the following feelings and behaviours: 

  • craving and fixation
  • not being able to stop
  • secrecy or denial
  • loss of control over the use or behaviour
  • increased or excessive use
  • withdrawal symptoms
  • sacrificing other commitments so you can continue your addiction
  • continuing addiction in spite of negative consequences.

The strain of managing an addiction can seriously damage your work life and relationships.

Addiction and misuse are different, but both cause harm

Not everybody who uses/takes/does something to excess or inappropriately has an addiction. Addiction is the long-term inability to moderate or cease intake.

Misuse is different from addiction in that a person still has control over using/taking/doing something, but it can still have a harmful effect on their health, relationships and general wellbeing.  

For example, someone who drinks alcohol heavily on a night out may experience both the euphoric and harmful effects of the substance. But that alone does not qualify as an addiction. It will not qualify as an addiction until the person feels the need to consume this amount of alcohol regularly, possibly alone, or at times during the day when the alcohol will likely impair regular activities, such as getting up in the morning and going to work.

A person who has not yet developed an addiction may be temporarily put off further use by harmful side effects. For example, vomiting or waking up with a hangover after drinking too much alcohol may put some people off drinking that amount anytime soon. Someone with an addiction will continue with the behaviour despite the harmful effects.

Both addiction and misuse cause harm.

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What are the risk factors for addiction?

Addiction is a complicated condition that affects people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities. It’s not completely understood what causes some people to be more prone to addiction than others. Usually, a number of factors contribute to the condition.

An addiction can be a way of blocking out difficult issues. 

Some of the factors that are thought to increase your vulnerability to addiction include:

  • trauma
  • abuse or neglect
  • poor family relations
  • living with or being around addicts
  • peer pressure and experimentation
  • stress at work, home or school
  • financial problems and poverty
  • people with parents/family history of addiction are more likely to develop addictions
  • personal past history
  • mental or physical illness, or chronic pain
  • early exposure – teenagers who begin using any addictive substance before age 18 are more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who are exposed during adulthood. 

How is addiction treated?

Overcoming addiction is possible with proper treatment and support. Your treatment plan will depend on the nature of your addiction.

In general, addiction treatment options include:

  • talk therapy
  • inpatient rehabilitation
  • outpatient treatment programmes
  • medication
  • support groups
  • self-help programs
  • lifestyle changes
  • therapeutic community living.

What can I do to support my recovery from addiction?

Recovery means different things to different people. There is no one definition and, like most things, one size does not fit all. It can be helpful to think of recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential”. (SAMSHA 2019)

There are four major areas that support recovery:

  • Health – overcoming or managing health conditions and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being.
  • Home – having a stable and safe place to live.
  • Purpose – carrying out meaningful daily activities and having the independence, income, and resources to participate in society.
  • Community – having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love and hope.

Hope, the belief that these challenges and conditions can be overcome, is the foundation of recovery. The process of recovery is highly personal and occurs through many pathways. 

The following may help you in your recovery:

  • Attending medical and therapeutic appointments.
  • Creating a network of people who can support you while you overcome addiction.
  • Learning about the addiction and its treatment.
  • Taking medication as prescribed.
  • Proper diet and exercise.
  • Reducing life stressors and learning how to cope with stress to avoid relapse.
  • Getting additional addiction treatment help when needed.

Real people share their recovery stories CADS, Auckland

Where can I get help for addiction?

Addiction is a treatable condition. You don’t have to deal with addiction on your own – there are resources, helplines, support groups, websites and counsellors available.

If there's something you find hard to give up or stop doing that is causing any harm to you or others, pick up the phone and ring one of the numbers below. Help and support are just a phone call away.


Alcohol Drug HelpLine 0800 787 797
Gambling HelpLine NZ  0800 654 655 (multiple languages)
QuitLine 0800 778 778
Kina Families & Addictions Trust Support for family, whānau and friends of people using alcohol and other drugs
Family Mental Health Support Inc South Canterbury NZ
Togetherall UK
More addiction support

Learn more

Drugs – help for yourself or others NZ Drug Foundation
Learn from others – your stories Drug Help NZ
Te Hikuwai resources for wellbeing – cannabis/tarutaru use Te Pou, NZ
DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorders Very Well Mind, US, 2019
An overview of internet addiction Very Well Mind, US, 2019
Addictive behaviours Very Well Mind, US, 2019
Learn about how drugs affect the brain with the interactive mouse party Learn Genetics (Genetic Science Learning Centre), University of Utah, US, 2015
Anxiety and addiction guide Ocean Recovery Centre, UK, 2017
Support for overcoming substance misuse Start your recovery, US, 2018
Drugs, brains, and behavior – the science of addiction National Institute on Drug Abuse, US, 2018
How addiction hijacks the brain Harvard Health, US
Drug and alcohol addiction Household Quotes, UK
Online NZ support to strengthen wellbeing Ignite, NZ


  1. Definition of addiction American Society of Addiction Medicine, US, 2011
  2. What is addiction? American Psychiatric Association, US, 2017
  3. Recovery Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, US, 2019
  4. Why are certain foods so addictive? Cleveland Clinic, US, 2021
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team . Reviewed By: Dr Alistair Dunn, GP & Northland DHB addictions clinical lead Last reviewed: 26 Jul 2019