By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.
Alcohol and drug use are as old as civilization. Equally ancient is the mystery of why one person can use a substance moderately while another becomes addicted. New research is now shedding light on this complex genetic, and biological, psychological, and sociological phenomenon. Many people and clinicians today have strong opinions on the best way to treat addiction. Indeed, the question of whether “harm-reduction” approaches can be successful is highly controversial.
One of the major risks of alcohol and drug use is the potential for overdose. Overdose happens when a toxic amount of a drug or combination of drugs overwhelms the body. Alcohol and drug overdoses have the potential to cause serious health consequences or death. Various factors influence the degree of risk experienced by any particular alcohol or drug user.
An over-the-counter medication called Naloxone (Narcan®) can be used to counter the effects of overdose from opioids such as morphine or heroin and can save lives. It is only effective for treatment of opioid overdose. However, it has no effect if a person does not have opioids in his or her system.
Addiction is defined as the compulsive need to use a habit-forming substance, or an “irresistible urge” to engage in a potentially harmful behavior. Two defining characteristics of addiction are tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance is the ever increasing need for more of the substance to obtain the same effect. Withdrawal refers to the uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms that occur when substance use is stopped suddenly or withheld.
The term addiction has come to refer to a wide range of behaviors. While most commonly used to refer to ingestion of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and food, it is sometimes used to mean excessive indulgence in activities including work, exercise, shopping, sex, and video-game playing although there is insufficient research evidence to warrant including these activities as diagnosable psychiatric disorders. In DSM-5, pathological gambling is classified as a behavioral addiction.
Addictive behaviors have been characterized as patterns, habits, compulsions, impulse control disorders, and physical addictions. Many psychologists believe that they can be best understood as learned habits or behavior patterns. According to this view, addictive behaviors are maladaptive habits and behavior patterns which are subject to the same principles of learning that govern all behaviors. Old or maladaptive habits can be broken and replaced with alternative and less harmful behaviors. In this way, addictive behaviors can be unlearned and new, healthier behaviors learned in their place.
Learn more about addiction in our homestudy course, Addictions: Alternatives to Abstinence.