What is Addiction? (in simple words)

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Have you ever tried searching for a straightforward, easy-to-understand explanation of addiction, only to find yourself drowning in a sea of technical jargon and complex terminology? You’re not alone. Addiction is a multifaceted and often misunderstood subject, leaving many people feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about what it truly means.

In simple words, addiction is a strong desire (craving) and uncontrollable need (compulsion) to use a substance or engage in a behavior, despite harmful consequences. It involves losing control and can be linked to substances like drugs or alcohol, or behaviors like gambling or internet use.

In this article, I’ve cut through the confusion to provide you with a clear and simple guide to understanding addiction. I’ll break down the key components, explore the various types of addiction, and explain how they can manifest in daily life. My goal is to empower you with knowledge, so you can recognize the signs of addiction in yourself or others, and seek the help and support needed for recovery.

The Four C’s of Addiction


Craving is a powerful desire or urge to use a substance or engage in an addictive behavior. It’s like a strong, sometimes uncontrollable, need that you feel inside.

Cravings can be set off by different things. Internal triggers might include emotions or memories, while external triggers could be people, places, or situations connected to the addiction.


Compulsion is the feeling that you must engage in the addictive behavior, even if it causes problems in your life. It’s like an unstoppable force pushing you to continue the addiction.

Compulsion can make it hard to focus on other important things, like taking care of yourself, spending time with friends and family, or doing well at work or school.


When it comes to addiction, control means being unable to stop using the substance or participating in the behavior, even when you want to or know that it’s harmful.

Losing control might look like using more of a substance than you planned or being unable to quit a behavior despite multiple attempts.


Consequences are the negative effects that happen because of the addiction. They can touch many parts of your life and often get worse over time.

Examples of consequences include health problems, emotional distress, damaged relationships, and financial troubles.

DSM-5 Definition of Substance Use Disorder

The DSM-5 is a book that doctors and therapists use to understand and identify mental health issues, including addiction.

For substance use disorder (addiction to things like drugs or alcohol), the DSM-5 has a list of signs that can show up in a person’s life:

  1. Impaired control: This means having trouble controlling the substance use, like using more than planned, wanting to stop but not being able to, or spending a lot of time getting and using the substance.
  2. Social impairment: This is when substance use causes problems in relationships, at work, or at school, or when someone gives up activities they used to enjoy because of the addiction.
  3. Risky use: This is when someone keeps using the substance even when it’s dangerous or makes existing health problems worse.
  4. Pharmacological criteria: This involves changes in the body, like needing more of the substance to feel the same effects (tolerance) or feeling sick when not using it (withdrawal).

Types of Addiction and their Commonalities

Substance addictions

These are addictions to things we put in our bodies, like alcohol, drugs (for example, painkillers, marijuana, or cocaine), or nicotine (found in cigarettes or vapes).

Behavioral addictions

These are addictions to certain actions or activities, like gambling (betting money on games of chance), spending too much time on the internet (like social media or online gaming), or having an unhealthy relationship with sex.


Gabor Maté, a well-known expert on addiction, believes that all addictions share some common features:

Escape from Pain: People often turn to addictive behaviors or substances to help them escape from pain or difficult emotions. This pain might come from past traumatic experiences, stress, or feeling lonely or sad. Addictions can provide temporary relief, but they don’t solve the underlying problems.

Disconnection: Maté suggests that addiction is often linked to feeling disconnected from others or from ourselves. When we don’t have strong connections with the people around us or a strong understanding of our emotions, we might try to fill that gap with addictive behaviors.

Unmet needs: Addictions can develop when we don’t have our emotional or physical needs met in a healthy way. For example, if someone doesn’t feel loved or supported, they might turn to substances or behaviors that make them feel better for a short time.

Adaptation: Addiction can be seen as a way our minds and bodies try to adapt to difficult situations. When faced with pain or stress, we might use substances or behaviors to help us cope. Over time, this can turn into an addiction.

Recognizing the Signs of Addiction

It’s important to know the signs of addiction, so you can spot them in yourself or others. Here are some things to look out for:

Craving: Pay attention if there’s a strong urge or desire to use a substance or engage in a behavior. This might feel like an overwhelming need that’s hard to ignore.

Compulsion: Notice if someone feels like they must continue the addictive behavior, even when it causes problems in their life. This could be a sign that the addiction is taking over.

Loss of control: If it’s hard to stop using a substance or participating in a behavior, even when wanting to, this could be a sign of addiction. Watch for increasing amounts of time spent on the addiction or difficulty quitting.

Consequences: Keep an eye out for negative effects caused by the addiction. This might include health issues, emotional distress, damaged relationships, or money troubles.

Changes in behavior: Look for changes in a person’s habits, like spending more time alone, avoiding friends or family, neglecting responsibilities at work or home, or becoming secretive about their activities.

Mood swings: Watch for sudden and unexplained changes in mood, such as irritability, anxiety, or depression, which may be related to the addiction.

Physical signs: Depending on the addiction, there might be noticeable physical signs, like weight loss or gain, poor hygiene, or a change in sleep patterns.

Tolerance: Be aware if someone needs to use more of a substance or engage in a behavior more often to achieve the same effect, as this could indicate a growing addiction.

Withdrawal: If a person experiences physical or emotional discomfort when they stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior, this could be a sign of addiction.

If you notice these signs in yourself or someone you care about, it might be time to seek help and support. Remember, addiction is a complex issue, and recognizing the signs is the first step toward recovery.


In conclusion, understanding addiction is crucial in recognizing the signs and seeking help for oneself or others. By breaking down the complexities of addiction, we can develop empathy and support for those struggling with it. Remember that addiction can affect anyone, and it is important to approach the topic with compassion and understanding.

As we become more informed about the nature of addiction and its various forms, we can better support those in need and contribute to a healthier, more understanding society. So, let’s continue to learn, empathize, and stand together in the journey towards recovery and healing.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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