Addiction is characterized by the uncontrollable urge to repeatedly ingest a substance or engage in an activity that may be pleasurable, but may have potentially damaging physical, mental and/or financial consequences. Addiction is most commonly associated with illegal drugs, alcohol and gambling, but can apply to a wider range of activities including sex, work and using the Internet.
Symptoms of addiction
Do you excessively engage in substance abuse or a specific activity such as gambling, work, or sex? Do you find it difficult, or even impossible, to go for an extended period without it? Does it occupy your mind/time to the extent that you have neglected important activities or relationships? Has it incurred noticeable physical, psychological or financial consequences?
If the answer to any of these is ‘yes’ then there is a risk you may have or develop an addiction. Whilst common and highly treatable, addictions can have serious long-term consequences and should be treated as early as possible. It is particularly important that you seek immediate professional help if you are engaging in excessive drug use or have noticed significant physical or psychological symptoms.
What causes addiction?
Whilst the precise nature of an addiction can be wide-ranging, the underlying principle of lack of control or compulsion to perform an act is central to all addictions. Equally, a fundamental component of an addiction is that a person finds the action or substance pleasurable – although its long-term use may have consequences that diminish this initial gratification. The repeated experience of this pleasurable activity can lead to tolerance, by which it must be repeated more frequently or to a greater magnitude to achieve the same ‘high.’
Whilst individuals may be aware of their addiction, many maintain that they are in control and that there is no problem. This can make addiction particularly difficult to identify, if the individual engages in it in private. Changes in physical appearance (particularly weight), personality (irritability or emotional instability) and behaviour (such as poor work/school performance or withdrawal from everyday activities), may be early warning signs that you or someone you know is developing an addiction.
Overcoming an addiction without support can be difficult, as an individual may experience psychological withdrawal (anxiety or reduction of pleasure) once they stop engaging in drug use or the specific behaviour. Those with drug addictions may also experience physical withdrawal (fatigue, nausea and insomnia) as their body has developed a physical dependence on the drug. Once an addiction is overcome, even with treatment, there is still risk of relapse through emotional or environmental triggers. On-going support is crucial in the mid to long term.
How treatments work for addiction
Addictions are common and treatable. Treatment usually includes a combination of psychotherapy, drug therapy (in the case of substance addiction), self-help programmes, and on-going support from family or friends. In severe drug addiction, prescribed medications (such as methadone in the case of heroin and morphine addiction) can alleviate the physical symptoms of withdrawal to enable the individual to engage in other treatment approaches.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective treatment for addiction, as it teaches the individual to recognize the moods, thoughts and situations that trigger their cravings. By better understanding the nature and consequences of their addiction the client can learn to avoid these triggers or engage in other, healthier activities in response to them. In some cases, particularly with substance addiction, group therapy can be beneficial as the individual is challenged and supported by others who are going through the same process. Cognitive behavioural therapy can also help to target any co-existing mental health problems that are either a result or cause of the addiction.
A support framework beyond individual therapy is important to minimise the risk that an individual might relapse in future. This might include a range of skills taught by the therapist to either the individual or those close to them, or establishing a supportive network of friends, family or peers to provide additional help if and when it is needed. Taking up a new activity to replace the addictive behaviour is often recommended, to give the client something to focus on and give a renewed sense of pleasure and purpose.