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What are addictions?

Addictions refer to a broad group of conditions in which an individual is regularly involved with a substance or activity in a way that is compulsive, hard to control, and often has harmful consequences. Addictions are most often defined by using a substance like drugs or alcohol (commonly called substance use disorders), but some definitions of addiction also include compulsive engagement in behaviors such as sex, gambling, or shopping.


Many people engage in substance use or potentially addictive behaviors without these habits becoming addictions. For example, looking forward to getting a drink at happy hour doesn’t mean you’re addicted to alcohol, and one evening at a casino doesn’t equal a gambling addiction. However, when you frequently seek out a substance or behavior in a way that feels difficult to cut back, control, or disengage from even when it interferes with your day-to-day life, it may be worth considering whether you’re struggling with an addiction.

How common are addictions?

According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 21.5 million people in the United States ages 12 and older had a substance use disorder. Of these, nearly 80% had an alcohol use disorder specifically. In the same year, more than seven million individuals had a drug use disorder.

American Addiction Centers indicate that, according to several sources, substance use disorders are more common in men than in women. In particular, men are about twice as likely as women to have alcohol use disorder.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also indicates that many people struggle with drug and alcohol use disorders simultaneously. Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that nearly eight million adults in the United States in 2014 had both a substance use disorder and a diagnosed mental health condition. This is what’s known as co-occurring disorders.

What are some symptoms of an addiction?

Symptoms of addiction can vary, but the most common indicators are as follows:

  • Compulsive use of a substance or engagement in a behavior: Individuals struggling with addictions may wish to stop or decrease use of a substance or behavior, but they find it difficult to do so. Cravings for the substance or behavior may be intense enough to interfere with other activities or even thoughts.

  • Risky use and/or harmful consequences: If you have an addiction, you might continue to use a substance or engage in a behavior even when it is dangerous—driving a car after drinking, for instance—or has a negative impact on you or those around you. Examples of such consequences might include problems at work, conflicts with friends or family, or excessive spending.

  • Lack of enjoyment: Substances or activities that once provided happiness or entertainment are now sources of stress, pain, or conflict.

  • Tolerance: You might need to use more of the substance or engage in the activity more frequently to experience the same effects you once did from a lesser amount.

  • Withdrawal: If you stop using the substance or engaging in the activity, you experience painful physical and/or psychological symptoms.

Different types of addiction

Addictions can come in many forms. A few of the most common addictions include:

  • Alcohol Use Disorder

  • Drug Use Disorders: This category includes addictions to, among other substances: amphetamines, cocaine, heroine, prescription drugs, and opioids. Tobacco addiction falls under this category of addiction.

  • Behavioral Addictions: These are addictions to activities, rather than substances. Some common activities that can be addictive include sex, gambling, shopping, working, exercising, and using the Internet.

What to do if you’re experiencing addiction-related challenges

Addictions are generally considered highly treatable. If you may have an addiction, you can explore the following options:

  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you understand your addiction and take steps toward recovery. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)

  • Recovery groups: Recovery groups, where you can meet others facing the same challenges that you are, are a common form of treatment for many different addictions. You can look for local chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous, to name a few.

  • Rehabilitation programs: Rehabilitation programs for addictions come in many forms, from long-term residential programs to outpatient programs. These programs often include a variety of services, such as counseling, group therapy, and medical treatment. Look for options in your area, or consult the national directory provided by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

  • Medical treatment: Treatment for many addictions often begins with a medically managed withdrawal process, sometimes followed by treatment with pharmaceutical tools or other medical supports. Contact your primary care doctor or an addiction treatment center to discuss these options.

  • Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at at 1-800-273-8255. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-4357 can also help you locate resource and treatment options.

What should I look for in a therapist for addiction?

Look for a therapist who has a specialty in treating addiction. If you’re not sure where to start, these questions may prove helpful when interviewing potential therapists:

  • What modality do you use when treating addictions?

  • Do you have a harm reduction or abstinence-based philosophy?

  • Are you able to help me/my loved one transition to a higher level of care if necessary?

Several different treatment methods have been shown to be helpful for various addictions. A few of the most common include:

Keep in mind that outpatient therapists often prefer clients to have other supports available simultaneously, and/or may refer clients to a higher level of care, as appropriate.

Find therapists specializing in addiction treatment near you

Find therapists who treat addiction on Zencare, below. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.