When Does Something Become an Addiction?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

When I share that I work in the addiction field, particularly focused on gambling, gaming, and technology use, people often immediately consider their own relationship with these things.

“I’m super addicted to my phone… I think my son is addicted to video games… my husband is addicted to work!”

I immediately want to take a step back and talk about what it means for something to be classified as an addiction while also compassionately being open to the possibility of these things actually being true.

Most likely, addiction is not an appropriate word for most of these daily activities.

It is important to distinguish between frequent use of something and an addiction. Pathologizing everything only diminishes the real struggle some people face. So when does something become an addiction?

Something becomes an addiction if it begins to have significant harmful impacts on other areas of your life. In addition, the individual experiences craving, loss of control over the substance or behavior, and is unable to stop despite these harms. 

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between recreation and addiction.

When is something a form of recreation?

Recreational use of something such as gambling, gaming, technology use, alcohol, or substances is a balanced part of someone’s life. It does not have a harmful impact on any other area and the person has full control over its use.

For example, a recreational gamer could be compared to a recreational craft beer enthusiast. Just because they enjoy it regularly does not make them an alcoholic.

Addiction is a problematic relationship to a behavior or substance, not the use of a particular substance or behavior in itself. To suggest so would be an overgeneralization that only serves to stigmatize persons within that specific demographic.

Most gamers don’t have a gaming addiction, just as most beer drinkers are not alcoholics, and most cannabis users are not addicted to cannabis.

But what about powerful substances like crystal meth? Is there such a thing as casual crystal meth use?

Although the concept sounds ridiculous, it is actually possible to engage in recreational crystal meth use. According to David Sack M.D., many people will try meth, and only a small percentage will become regular users.

Despite this, I would never recommend dabbling with powerful substances such as crystal meth, since the risk of addiction is significantly higher. David Sack, M.D., states:

Most crystal meth addicts have a brief period of “casual” or “recreational” use. This can quickly escalate to abuse and dependency. Attempting to use meth (or any other addictive stimulant, such as cocaine) in a casual/recreational fashion is a bit like playing with matches in a room filled with dynamite. No matter how careful you are, you’re likely to blow the place up.

Use of any substance or behavior should never be conflated with addiction, but some things carry a higher risk, such as powerful stimulants and opioids.

When does something become an addiction?

Something becomes an addiction if it begins to have significant harmful impacts on other areas of your life. In addition, the individual experiences craving, loss of control over the substance or behavior, and is unable to stop despite these harms. 

Recreation is about pleasure, whereas addiction is about coping.

When using a substance or behavior for recreation, a person is coming from a place where they are already feeling whole. Their chosen form of recreation adds to their life.

When using a substance or behavior to cope, a person is coming from a place where they feel like they are not whole. They may feel like they are not enough, using a substance or behavior to inflate their confidence. They may be suffering from anxiety, using a substance or behavior to stay calm and get out of their head. They may be carrying shame, using a substance or behavior to distract them from the underlying pain.

Addiction means using something to cope, requiring it to feel “normal.”

Many persons with an addiction report feeling a sense of wholeness when they began using a substance; a sense that the world now has color; a sense of warmth imitating the feeling of love.

Eventually, tolerance and physical dependence may develop, leading to the need to increase usage and an inability to discontinue use due to withdrawal. At this point, the person may need the substance to feel physically normal. This is particularly relevant for opioid use.

For stimulants, physical dependence generally refers to the brain’s downregulation of dopamine production, leading to the inability to normally experience pleasure while not using the substance.

Also, after writing a previous article on why video games are addictive, I received some questions on how to determine if you are using gaming as a form of recreation or if it has become an addiction.

In 2018, the World Health Organization classified Gaming disorder as an official form of addictive behavior. It consists of three components:

  1. The loss of control over one’s gaming
  2. Gaming taking priority over other areas of life
  3. Continued use despite negative consequences and impaired functioning in other areas of one’s life.

The key difference between someone who has a video gaming addiction and someone who plays a lot of games is the lack of control and negative impact it has on the person’s life. This negative impact can include dropping out of schooling, loss of employment, loss of contact with in-person friends or family, in addition to physical health issues.

What about binging?

Although there is no shortage of Netflix binging right now, addictive binging is different than recreational binging.

If you have extra free time and have taken care of your basic responsibilities, binging on Netflix, having a wild night with too many cocktails, or partaking in too much of the devil’s lettuce may be a form of recreation.

Addictive binging is distinct since it is used to cope with underlying pain, stress, or anxiety. Beyond merely letting off steam, this form of binging comes in somewhat regular intervals and has negative impacts on other areas of life.

This form of addiction is tricky since the individual can appear to have the substance or behavior under control most of the time, even convincing themselves they have it under control.

Some people who binge on alcohol may even be able to drink recreationally in certain situations.

Recall the key difference between recreation and addiction is the loss of control and the harmful impact on their life.

Conclusion

The word “addiction” is often used casually to explain the frequent use of a substance or behavior such as gaming. Addiction and recreation are different since recreation is about pleasure, whereas addiction is about coping.

All substances and behaviors can be used recreationally, but some carry more risks than others.

Persons who develop addictions are often coping with underlying pain or anxiety, eventually becoming dependent on the substance or behavior. This is a form of short-term coping with long-term costs.

Addictions consist of the loss of control and the inability to stop a substance or behavior despite the negative consequences.

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

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

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you’re just bored and looking for a new hobby, check out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

*As an affiliate partner, I may receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial. 


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2 Comments

  1. Eliza

    Addiction is when it has control over you rather than you controlling it.
    💕💕💕

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Very nice way of saying it. Thanks!

      Reply

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