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What is addiction?

Addiction is the regular use of a substance due to physical or psychological need. It is also known as a substance use disorder.There are many forms of addiction, and some substances are more addictive and harmful than others. The likelihood of a person becoming addicted to a substance depends on mental, physical and other health factors.

Signs of addiction can be:


  • Regular or continued substance use to cope emotionally, socially or physically
  • Neglecting responsibilities and activities that are important or enjoyable
  • Participating in dangerous or risky behaviours as a result of substance use
  • Relationship problems (e.g. arguments with partner, family, friends, or losing friends)
  • Physical tolerance – needing more of the substance to experience the same effects
  • Withdrawal – physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when you are not using the substance or needing the substance to feel “normal”
  • Losing control of your substance use – being dependent or unable to stop even if you want or try to
  • Substance use takes over your life (e.g. spending a lot of time using, finding or getting the substance and recovering from the effects).

Signs of addiction provided by Lifeline

  • In 2018-2019, around 137,000 clients aged 10 and over, received alcohol and other drug treatment services

  • In 2019, around 3.4 million Australians reported using an illicit drug in the last 12 months

  • In 2019, 1 in 4 (25%) people aged 14 and over exceeded the single occasion risk guidelines by consuming more than 4 standard drinks in one sitting, at least monthly.

Causes and treatment

There are many biological, social and psychological reasons why someone becomes addicted. Addiction occurs when a cycle begins in the brain. The brain encounters a substance (could be an illicit drug or alcohol or nicotine) that triggers release of the chemical dopamine, causing a feeling of relief or happiness. When this occurs repeatedly, the brain adapts, so that it feels starved of dopamine until it receives the substance that causes its release. A person then feels that they need that substance in order to feel normal or happy. Treatment is often provided through multiple services. Counselling is usually required for long term behaviour change, and to help address any underlying issues the person may have. There are also medications available to assist with recovery and withdrawal symptoms from addiction, and to reduce craving.

The best person to talk to about addiction is a GP or health care provider, who can then make a referral to the most appropriate service.

If you feel you are in immediate danger, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

How the Florey is making a difference

Our addiction group researches how drugs, including alcohol, change the brain's structure, chemistry and function. Genetic and pharmacological approaches combined with models of drug-seeking and relapse can help uncover neural pathways implicated in drug seeking behaviour, a critical requirement in developing future treatments.

Support and information

While The Florey researches addiction, we do not offer crisis support. If you require immediate support please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or for more information contact the Alcohol and Drug Foundation on 1300 85 85 84 or Turning Point on 8413 8413. If your life is in immediate danger call 000.

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Brain health affects all Australians.
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