What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol,cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.

The word addiction is used in several different ways. One definition describes physical addiction. This is a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a drug so that drug no longer has the same effect, otherwise known as a tolerance. Another form of physical addiction is the phenomenon of overreaction by the brain to drugs (or to cues associated with the drugs). An alcoholic walking into a bar, for instance, will feel an extra pull to have a drink because of these cues.

However, most addictive behavior is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People compulsively use drugs, gamble, or shop nearly always in reaction to being emotionally stressed, whether or not they have a physical addiction. Since these psychologically based addictions are not based on drug or brain effects, they can account for why people frequently switch addictive actions from one drug to a completely different kind of drug, or even to a non-drug behavior. The focus of the addiction isn’t what matters; it’s the need to take action under certain kinds of stress. Treating this kind of addiction requires an understanding of how it works psychologically.

When referring to any kind of addiction, it is important to recognize that its cause is not simply a search for pleasure and that addiction has nothing to do with one’s morality or strength of character. Experts debate whether addiction is a “disease” or a true mental illness, whether drug dependence and addiction mean the same thing, and many other aspects of addiction. Such debates are not likely to be resolved soon. But the lack of resolution does not preclude effective treatment.

WHAT IS ADDICTION? — A New Definition of Addiction

Most people associate the word addiction with alcohol or drugs, but that association severely and inappropriately limits the extent of addiction in our society. A new definition of addiction is needed, one which will give us a better grasp of the nature of addiction and will enable us to approach its treatment in a far more productive way.

Addiction is the compulsive use of any substance, person, feeling, or behavior with a relative disregard of the potentially negative social, psychological, and physical consequences.

This definition of addiction creates a much broader — and more accurate — picture of addiction, which we will demonstrate in much greater detail throughout the remainder of this article. Before we can meaningfully continue our discussion of addiction, however, we must first consider its causes in a new way.


Despite all the research done on this subject, there is no consensus on the cause of addiction. Some theories have been proposed, however:

  • Genetic: We are born with a genetic predisposition to addiction.
  • Bio-chemical: There is a chemical imbalance in the nervous system that makes us more susceptible to addiction.
  • Mental illness: Addicts have a kind of mental illness.

Regardless of the specific cause espoused, most experts regard addiction as a disease, and many believe it’s inherited. They believe that people inherit the tendency to addiction, even if they never actually become addicted to a specific substance.

A New and Powerful Explanation for Addiction

Researchers have now worked intimately with thousands of addicts, and he proposes a cause for addiction that is radically different from those generally discussed. This proposal explains the overall data of addiction better than other theories do, and this proposed cause has allowed the development of a treatment plan that has proven to be very effective with thousands of addicts.

The Broad Face of Addiction

We can become addicted to anything that diminishes the pain of not feeling loved, and that includes a broad range of “substances, people, feelings, and behaviors.” We can become addicted to

  • alcohol, which gives us an obvious sensation of pleasure. More importantly, alcohol is a depressant that dulls the pain in our lives, most prominently the pain of not feeling loved. Dr. Baer relates that virtually every alcoholic he has known has resonated with the suggestion that relief of pain (safety) is the primary reason for his or her drinking. Many people also get a sensation of power from alcohol, because when intoxicated they feel a measure of freedom from their fears.
  • drugs (same pleasure, power, and safety as from alcohol).
  • sex (pleasure, praise, power).
  • porn (pleasure, safety).
  • food (pleasure).
  • gambling (pleasure, praise, power).
  • approval (praise, power, safety).
  • the “love” compulsively derived from a single person (praise, power, pleasure, safety). Falling in love usually exemplifies this.
  • controlling others (power, praise, safety).
  • anger (power, safety).
  • lying (safety).
  • shopping (praise, power).
  • running from relationships (safety).
  • money (praise, power, pleasure, safety).

And this is an incomplete list. When we understand addiction in light of the insights above, the incidence of addiction in our society rises to well over 90%.


The average rate of addicts going back to their addiction AFTER in-patient or out-patient treatment is 90-95%. Not very encouraging, is it?

Why do so many addicts go back to their addictions after experiencing a period of sobriety, where they learn a sense of freedom from the chains of their addiction? Both addicts and their families are sorely puzzled by this repetitive and seemingly insane behavior.

The explanation is easy: As we said earlier, addiction is a response to pain. Addicts use their addictive substance or behavior as a way of diminishing the pain of not feeling unconditionally loved, not feeling worthwhile, and not having a sense of peace and joy in their lives. If addiction treatment simply removes the addict from his addiction, treatment succeeds only in eliminating the addict’s ability to reduce his pain. The addiction is temporarily gone, but the pain remains, and THAT is a huge problem. The addict is sober but miserable.

If an addict is sober but in pain, he HAS to do something about the pain. We can’t tolerate untreated pain. So the addict either returns to his former addiction, or he finds a new one—switching from porn to alcohol, for example. The point of addiction treatment is NOT to become drug-free or porn-free. The goal of treatment is to give the addict the love he’s always been missing, so the old wounds can heal, and the pain can disappear. The goal is to treat the CAUSE of the wounds, not the SYMPTOMS.

When addicts feel unconditionally loved, the incidence of relapse is VERY low, and if there is a relapse, there is no shame, no sense of “starting all over from the bottom.” We simply love the addict again, and remind him of the love available. Then the desire to engage in addictive behaviors just disappears.