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Information for Youth: Addiction

What is Addiction?

What do you think of when you think about addiction? Maybe you think of a scene from a movie or TV show. Or maybe you have seen a friend or family member struggle with addiction and wondered why someone would keep doing something to hurt themselves and others. There are different definitions of addiction, but a simple way to describe it is when someone keeps doing something that has a negative impact. Many of us can relate to this as we may do things that aren’t good for us or others but keep doing them like eating junk food, not exercising, or gossiping. That’s why we shouldn’t judge others but try to understand what we, or someone else, may be doing that could be causing someone to do something that has a negative impact.

It’s hard to understand why some people develop an addiction and others don’t. Addiction is an outcome based on a person’s characteristics (such as genetics and mental health), the substance or behavior they can’t stop doing, and their surroundings. Every person is different and so are their experiences and surroundings.

Some signs of having an addiction or that one is starting to develop include:

  • wanting to quit a substance or negative behaviour or do it less, but can’t
  • feeling bad after using a substance or behaving in a negative way
  • having trouble coping when not doing it
  • doing things that used to make us happy less often
  • when a substance or negative behaviour becomes more important in our lives

Some facts about addiction include:

  • Change is a challenge for all people.
  • Each drug and habit has a different effect on people. For example, to understand how people get addicted to cocaine, we need to understand how and why people develop a habit in general, and also how cocaine affects the body.
  • Some people are more likely to develop certain addictions (like dependence on alcohol) because of their life experiences or family history.
  • Some people develop more than one addiction. For example, many people who misuse alcohol also smoke.
  • Some people switch addictions. For example, people who have stopped using heroin may become dependent on alcohol.
  • People who would not use illegal drugs sometimes become dependent on prescription drugs.
  • Some people depend on a drug in a certain situation (like when they’re in a city), but don’t use in other situations (like a “dry" work camp in a remote area).
  • People with the same addiction often have different patterns of use. For example, some people smoke half a pack of cigarettes a day and others smoke 2 packs a day. Some only smoke 1 or 2 times a month and can quit quite easily. A very small number of people can even control their smoking and never become addicted. But many people have a very hard time quitting smoking.

Addictions are very common, but they are complicated. They depend on a number of factors including:

  • The drug or behavior – For example, some drugs are linked to very high rates of addiction, like nicotine.
  • a person’s mental health, biology, and genes
  • a person’s life situation or past experiences
  • how available a drug is
  • how acceptable the drug or behaviour is to the person, their friends, and society

We have choices. If you or someone you know is using a drug more and more in certain situations, you can look for ways to avoid those situations. When we are aware and learn about drug addiction including substances like alcohol and prescription drugs, we can also prevent their misuse. If someone you know has a family history of addiction, pay close attention and learn about that type of addiction.

But not all habits are bad and many are even good for us. So much of what we do is part of a routine that we build into our lives. Some habits are obvious, some are hidden, some are simple, and some are very complex. Knowing what your ability is to develop a habit (called “habit potential”) helps us to understand how we develop habits. We can use this information to help us develop better habits and avoid or get rid of bad ones.

If you or someone you know uses drugs or is having trouble stopping a certain behaviour, get help. To find out more about how Alberta Health Services can help you make a change, or to find an addiction services office near you, please call the 24-hour Addiction Helpline (toll-free within Alberta).​

Current as of: May 8, 2018

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services