The terms "addiction," "chemical dependency," "substance abuse," and "substance use disorder" are often used interchangeably in reference to the compulsive use of alcohol and other mood-altering substances, whether they’re prescribed and taken legally or illegally. But most professionals now use the term "substance use disorder" to describe the disease more broadly and without any stigmatizing language.
Of course, addiction isn’t confined to psychoactive drugs like alcohol and marijuana: a person can become psychologically dependent on a behavior, like shopping, gambling or gaming.
Since 1956, addiction has been classified as a disease by the American Medical Association. And the American Society of Addiction Medicine describes addiction as "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry."
Since then, much research has been conducted in order to understand the neurobiology of addiction—how the brain and limbic system are affected by addiction, the role of genetics and family history, and the interplay between different neurotransmitters, hormones and chemicals.
Some behaviors like sex and exercise trigger a flood of dopamine in the brain, much like alcohol and marijuana. Although this brain chemical is naturally produced, humans can become psychologically dependent on the stimulating effects of their favorite exercises or activities, sometimes turning a habit or hobby into something else entirely.
Although the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation focuses mostly on alcohol and other drug addiction and mental health disorders—offering inpatient and outpatient treatment for substance use disorders, as well as outpatient mental health services—there are compulsive behaviors that also require intervention and treatment, especially when they’re causing negative consequences in a person’s life. In some cases, these compulsive behaviors are referred to as "process addictions."
Some common traits across addiction and compulsive behaviors or “process addictions” include:
Like other chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. And like other chronic diseases, addiction can be successfully treated and managed. Whether you are addicted to a substance or you have become dependent on behaviors that negatively impact your life, there are treatment options that can help you quit.
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