Nearly anyone can become addicted, and it is estimated that two million people in the UK are currently suffering from an addiction of some sort. The reasons why people become addicted vary, although they are not fully understood. Typically addiction tends to be a result of a combination of physical, emotional and circumstantial factors, such as the following:
- Family history – Numerous studies have shown that children who have parents with addictions are more likely to develop an addiction themselves.
- Mental health issue – Addictions tend to be more common among those who have mental health problems such as depression or anxiety.
- Early use of substances such as drugs or alcohol – Evidence has shown that the earlier a person is exposed to certain addictive substances and activities, the more likely they are to become addicts.
- Social environment – People are thought to be more vulnerable to addiction if they live, go to school or work in an environment in which use of addictive substances, and involvement in addictive activities, is common.
- Childhood trauma – Extensive research has shown that children who suffer from abuse or neglect – or experience persistent family conflict, sexual abuse or other trauma – are more vulnerable to developing an addiction.
- Stress – Science strongly supports a link between addictions and stress.
Types of addiction
Identifying the causes of an addiction can help to establish what type of addiction someone is struggling with. There tends to be two common variations of addiction.
1. Physical addiction
A physical addiction is a dependence on a substance or particular activity to provide pleasure and emotional ‘highs’. For many people struggling with a physical addiction, the sight or thought of an activity can evoke sensations of anticipatory pleasure. These individuals will crave a fix to provide a rush of warmth, clarity and a release from everyday life and pressures. For a brief period, everything feels right, but the inevitable low that follows a high – and a sudden return to reality – can increase feelings of hopelessness. This in turn increases the desire to partake in the activity once again. This type of addiction is referred to as a biological state, in which the body adapts to the presence of an addictive substance so that it no longer has the same effect. Because of this ‘tolerance’ there is a biological reaction when the addictive substance or activity is withdrawn. This reaction increases cravings and traps addicts in a spiral of escalating use.
2. Psychological dependency
Not all addictions are simply the result of a search for pleasure. Often people fall into gambling, drug abuse, alcohol addiction etc., as a means of coping with an overwhelming psychological issue. Their addiction tends to fulfill a valuable need and makes up for a void in their life – helping to block out negative experiences and relieve the stress associated with them. Psychological addictions are not based on drug or brain effects, and this can explain why some people will frequently switch addictive behaviours and actions – for example, from one drug to a completely different one. The focus of the addiction isn’t important – there is simply a need to take action under a certain kind of emotional strain. For most, this type of addiction brings further problems, such as feelings of guilt, despair, failure and shame, which eventually create an increasingly destructive cycle, involving family and friends.
Signs and symptoms of addiction
There are many signs and symptoms of addiction. Although these may vary slightly depending on specific substance or activity that is used, every addiction has the capacity to greatly impact self-esteem and confidence – inducing troublesome feelings, such as shame, guilt, a sense of hopelessness and failure. People struggling with an addiction are also likely to experience the following physical and emotional symptoms:
- Inability to limit use of a substance or activity to the extent that they show signs of physical impairment.
- Intense cravings and compulsions to use the substance or activity.
- Escalating use of the substance or activity – indicating tolerance.
- Continued use of the substance or activity despite increasingly negative consequences.
- Irritability, anxiety, poor focus, the shakes and nausea if they attempt to withdraw from the drug or activity.
- Repetitive relapsing.
- Personality and behavioural changes, such as taking risks (either to make sure they can obtain a substance/activity, or doing so while under the influence).
- Neglecting responsibilities and important activities in everyday life, including school/work.
- Becoming increasingly obsessed with focusing all their time and energy on ways of getting their substance/activity.
In many cases, a person with an addiction will not realise that they are addicted, and will be unaware of the harm their dependency is doing to them and those around them. Alternatively, some sufferers may be aware of their addiction, but will be in denial about the symptoms – especially if their addiction is their main way of coping with other problems. Others may ignore their symptoms out of fear that they will be unable to cope or enjoy life without their addiction. This denial is common among people with addictions – many falsely believe they could stop if they ‘wanted to’.
Unfortunately, this denial is often what causes an addiction to escalate far beyond a person’s control, and this can lead to further consequences for a person’s health and well-being. In the more advanced stages of an addiction, some sufferers will find themselves caught up in financial difficulties, and may even end up losing their job as a result of their increasing unpredictability. Marriage and relationship issues are other common consequences of addictions, and problems may also begin to emerge at home and in school. For some, their addiction may even get them in trouble with the law.
Getting help for addiction
In some cases, the harm of an addiction may only be recognised when the addicted person experiences a crisis – either as a result of a major life consequence or when the addictive substance or behaviour is suddenly taken away. This is often what motivates sufferers to seek help for addiction, but there are those who are able to kick-start their recovery long before their illness escalates. Whilst some people may be able to recover from an addiction without help, it is strongly believed that most people require support in the form of specialised addiction treatment. Evidence has shown that the earlier treatment is sought, the more successful it will be.
The first step in seeking help for addiction is usually to speak to someone about how you are feeling. If you are nervous about speaking to a loved-one, there are various charitable organisations that have been set up to help people with addictions. You may also want to consider visiting your GP who can answer any questions you may have about your condition. Most medical professionals should be comfortable dealing with people with addictions, and will be able to provide a safe and non-prejudiced environment for you and/or your loved ones to express concerns.
Typically an appointment with a medical professional will involve a full history and physical exam in order to diagnose your addiction and establish any health problems that may have resulted from the illness. Diagnosis usually involves an analysis of physical symptoms in accordance to specific addiction criteria. Essentially, your doctor will be looking for signs that your behaviour is:
– Persistent – occurring over a period of time despite negative consequences.
– Maladaptive – counter-productive to personal self (i.e. undermining your ability to adapt to situations and overcome problems).
There are several treatments that are proven to be effective in helping people to overcome their addictions, and these are tailored to the individual and their particular addiction. Typically, addiction treatment is a combination of medication and talking therapies, which are designed to promote abstinence and clear up physical and emotional consequences of addictions. Treatment may also involve aftercare support in the form of self-help groups, which are designed to help people cope with the after effects and avoid triggers.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tends to be used in addiction counselling because it helps individuals to identify and correct problematic behaviours via the application of easy to use skills. CBT also helps to address underlying problems that often co-occur with an addiction, and this is important for helping to target the root cause(s). Essentially, by interrupting the self-perpetuating cycle of an addiction, counselling provides a new way for people with addictions to think, feel and act – removing the troubled thinking and helping them to view difficult situations in a new light. This is important for helping them to maintain the change, which is often considered harder than stopping the addiction.