Also known as dependence

Key points about addiction

  • Addiction is when you no longer have control over doing, taking or using something to the point that it is causing harm to you or those around you.
  • Addiction is a treatable condition. Recovery is possible.
  • Addiction affects the way your brain works, leading to intense cravings for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite negative consequences.
  • You can become addicted to anything, especially things that make you feel good or provide some sort of relief.
  • Recovery can involve a combination of therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.
  • You don’t have to deal with addiction on your own.
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The term addiction describes doing/taking/using something even though it cases harm to you or those around you, and you no longer have control over it. Anything you use a lot of and all the time (compulsively and obsessively) to ease tension or enhance your mood can become addictive.

Video: How Addiction Affects The Brain

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(Dana Foundation, US, 2020)

Common addictions include:

  • alcohol
  • cigarettes (tobacco)
  • P (meth), cannabis and other illegal drugs
  • prescription medicines
  • gambling
  • gaming and social media
  • work and study
  • sex and porn.

Food is also considered by some people to be a source of addiction, but not everyone agrees making it a controversial topic. 

Addiction is considered a mental illness and can be treated similarly to other mental illnesses with therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.

Video: What causes addiction?

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(Maudsley NHS, UK, 2012)

There are lots of reasons why addictions begin. In the beginning, certain behaviours may seem harmless but over time harmful patterns of use may develop. 

It is thought that the biological processes that cause addiction involve the reward centres in your brain. When the brain finds something pleasurable, it creates a positive memory and affects its neurotransmitters (chemicals). This leads to mental and physical changes that increase the motivation to experience that pleasure again.

For an addict, these changes in your brain create an urge so powerful that you feel driven to recreate the enjoyable high and/or to escape an unpleasant comedown, no matter what the consequences.

Often, you will need more and more to achieve the high (‘tolerance’), causing the addiction to spiral out of control.

Addiction can also occur without tolerance or withdrawal and the presence of tolerance or withdrawal does not necessarily always mean addiction.

The main sign of addiction is a problematic pattern of use that has a negative impact on day to day life. 

Choosing an action, behaviour or substance to the exclusion or detriment of other parts of your life is a sign of addiction.

Additions are often associated with the following feelings and behaviours: 

  • craving and fixation
  • not being able to stop
  • secrecy or denial
  • loss of control over the use or behaviour
  • increased or excessive use
  • withdrawal symptoms
  • sacrificing other commitments so you can continue your addiction
  • continuing addiction in spite of negative consequences.

The strain of managing an addiction can seriously damage your work life and relationships.

Not everybody who uses/takes/does something to excess or inappropriately has an addiction. Addiction is the long-term inability to moderate or cease intake.

Misuse is different from addiction in that a person still has control over using/taking/doing something, but it can still have a harmful effect on their health, relationships and general wellbeing.  

For example, someone who drinks alcohol heavily on a night out may experience both the euphoric and harmful effects of the substance. But that alone does not qualify as an addiction. It will not qualify as an addiction until the person feels the need to consume this amount of alcohol regularly, possibly alone, or at times during the day when the alcohol will likely impair regular activities, such as getting up in the morning and going to work.

A person who has not yet developed an addiction may be temporarily put off further use by harmful side effects. For example, vomiting or waking up with a hangover after drinking too much alcohol may put some people off drinking that amount anytime soon. Someone with an addiction will continue with the behaviour despite the harmful effects.

Both addiction and misuse cause harm.

Find out the level of harm you may be at risk of if you:

Addiction is a complicated condition that affects people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities. It’s not completely understood what causes some people to be more prone to addiction than others. Usually, a number of factors contribute to the condition.

An addiction can be a way of blocking out difficult issues. 

Some of the factors that are thought to increase your vulnerability to addiction include:

  • trauma
  • abuse or neglect
  • poor family relations
  • living with or being around addicts
  • peer pressure and experimentation
  • stress at work, home or school
  • financial problems and poverty
  • people with parents/family history of addiction are more likely to develop addictions
  • personal past history
  • mental or physical illness, or chronic pain
  • early exposure – teenagers who begin using any addictive substance before age 18 are more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who are exposed during adulthood. 

Overcoming addiction is possible with proper treatment and support. Your treatment plan will depend on the nature of your addiction.

In general, addiction treatment options include:

  • talk therapy
  • inpatient rehabilitation
  • outpatient treatment programmes
  • medication
  • support groups
  • self-help programs
  • lifestyle changes
  • therapeutic community living.

Apps reviewed by Healthify

You may find it useful to look at some alcohol use apps, problem gambling apps, and quit smoking apps.

Recovery means different things to different people. There is no one definition and, like most things, one size does not fit all. It can be helpful to think of recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential”. (SAMSHA(external link)(external link) 2019)

There are four major areas that support recovery:

  • Health – overcoming or managing health conditions and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being.
  • Home – having a stable and safe place to live.
  • Purpose – carrying out meaningful daily activities and having the independence, income, and resources to participate in society.
  • Community – having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love and hope.

Hope, the belief that these challenges and conditions can be overcome, is the foundation of recovery. The process of recovery is highly personal and occurs through many pathways. 

The following may help you in your recovery:

  • Attending medical and therapeutic appointments.
  • Creating a network of people who can support you while you overcome addiction.
  • Learning about the addiction and its treatment.
  • Taking medication as prescribed.
  • Proper diet and exercise.
  • Reducing life stressors and learning how to cope with stress to avoid relapse.
  • Getting additional addiction treatment help when needed.

Real people share their recovery stories(external link)(external link) CADS, Auckland

A former drug addict himself, Lewis now researches addiction. In order to get over one's addiction, he explains, self-trust is necessary. 

Video: Addiction and trust: Marc Lewis at TEDxRadboudU 2013

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(Tedx Talks, 2013)

Addiction is a treatable condition. You don’t have to deal with addiction on your own – there are resources, helplines, support groups, websites and counsellors available.

If there's something you find hard to give up or stop doing that is causing any harm to you or others, pick up the phone and ring one of the numbers below. Help and support are just a phone call away.

Drugs – help for yourself or others(external link)(external link) NZ Drug Foundation
Learn from others – your stories(external link)(external link) Drug Help NZ
Te Hikuwai resources for wellbeing – cannabis/tarutaru use Te Pou, NZ
DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorders(external link)(external link) Very Well Mind, US, 2019
An overview of internet addiction(external link)(external link) Very Well Mind, US, 2019
Addictive behaviours(external link)(external link) Very Well Mind, US, 2019
Learn about how drugs affect the brain with the interactive mouse party(external link)(external link) Learn Genetics (Genetic Science Learning Centre), University of Utah, US, 2015
Anxiety and addiction guide(external link)(external link) Ocean Recovery Centre, UK, 2017
Support for overcoming substance misuse(external link)(external link) Start your recovery, US, 2018
Drugs, brains, and behavior – the science of addiction(external link)(external link) National Institute on Drug Abuse, US, 2018
How addiction hijacks the brain(external link)(external link) Harvard Health, US
Drug and alcohol addiction(external link)(external link) Household Quotes, UK
Online NZ support to strengthen wellbeing(external link)(external link) Ignite, NZ
The impact of vaping on adolescent mental health(external link) Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2023


Alcohol use apps
Problem gambling apps
Quit smoking apps


A guide to conversations with young people about drugs & alcohol(external link) (external link)NZ Drug Foundation, 2018
Living well – life strategies for family, whānau and friends of people using alcohol and other drugs(external link)(external link) Kina Families & Addictions Trust, NZ
We are family stories booklet(external link)(external link) Matua Raki
When someone you care about has mental health or addiction problems(external link)(external link) Mental Health Commission, NZ, 2010
Managing your own withdrawal(external link)(external link) Matua Raki, NZ
Real people share their recovery stories(external link)(external link) Matua Raki, NZ
A guide for Asian people to manage addictions and emotional distress(external link)(external link) Asian Family Services, NZ, 2018 English(external link)(external link), Chinese(external link)(external link), Hindi(external link)(external link)Korean(external link)(external link)


  1. Definition of addiction(external link)(external link) American Society of Addiction Medicine, US, 2011
  2. What is addiction?(external link)(external link) American Psychiatric Association, US, 2017
  3. Recovery(external link)(external link) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, US, 2019
  4. Why are certain foods so addictive?(external link)(external link) Cleveland Clinic, US, 2021

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Alistair Dunn, GP & Northland DHB addictions clinical lead

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