Many of us take part in activities that are often associated with addictive or compulsive behaviours – activities such as drinking or gambling. But not all of us are addicted to them. What constitutes addictive behaviour? When do we cross the line?
Addictions come in many forms. Street drugs, prescription medications, alcohol, and inhalants are all common substances of abuse. Gambling, sex, and shopping are often associated with compulsive or problem behaviour.
One of the hallmarks of addictive behaviour is that it interferes with a person's life – to the point where all of their energy and attention is given to that pursuit. This is because certain activities (such as drinking or gambling) stimulate a "reward pathway" in the brain. As a result, the brain wants to continue with this activity, even in the face of negative consequences for the person involved. The desire for the "reward" becomes stronger than the impact of the negative consequences and so the behaviour proceeds. For example, a person with a gambling addiction may continue seeking entry to a casino after having been banned, or may cash in their life savings so that they can continue to gamble.
An addiction can be described as a continuous involvement in a repeated behaviour that creates some kind of negative consequence. This also applies to a person who continues to pursue an activity despite harmful results – for example, a smoker who does not quit despite knowing the health risks they face.
The key characteristics of addiction are two-fold: a loss of control (one's behaviour becomes unpredictable, for example continuing to drink despite having vowed to stop) and a strong sense of denial. Denial about having an addiction is a powerful factor in leading the person to continue with his or her habit, as the belief is strong that there is no real problem and that next time the outcome from the same behaviour will be different.
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