Addiction is the process when a person feels a compulsion or an urge to engage in a behaviour or use a substance which, despite the rewards, has negative consequences. Addiction can involve using substances which are known to be physically &/or psychologically addictive, such as alcohol, inhalants, opioids, cocaine, caffeine and nicotine. Addiction can involve engaging in behaviours which are known to be physically &/or psychologically addictive, such as gambling. People report feeling addicted to video gaming, internet usage, shopping, sexual activity, work and even exercise. When a person has difficulty managing their urge to use a substance or engage in a behaviour, and when continuing to use that substance or behaviour is impacting their daily life and relationships, then it is possible they are experiencing addiction to that substance or behaviour. That can be difficult and distressing for the person themselves to accept, and also difficult for those who love that individual.
Use of addictive substances and addictive behaviours offer rewards to the user, often involving the brain areas associated with reward and reinforcement and the neurotransmitter dopamine. The release of dopamine in our brain leads to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This helps to explain why someone experiencing addiction finds it so hard to discontinue the use of the substance or behaviour, despite the physical or psychological harm it causes. Those who experience addiction to substances or behaviours have a higher risk of also having a mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. This too can make it hard for someone to discontinue the use of the addictive substance or behaviour as it may one way the person tries to manage their mental health condition. Addiction can lead to a sense of hopelessness and feelings of shame and guilt, as well as lead to physical health difficulties.
Whether you consider that you may be at risk of developing an addiction, or are concerned that your use of a substance or behaviour is now out of control and having negative consequences upon your life, health and relationships, it is important to know that help is out there. A good first step is to speak to your GP. There are many options for support, including self-help, peer support groups, one-to-one support from a key worker, medication, detoxification (detox) programmes and rehabilitation. Many of these approaches are also combined with talking therapies, and this can be helpful to explore your relationship with the behaviour or substance and your feelings about this. Sadly, we know that trauma and abuse, particularly as a child, can contribute to the development of addiction. For some people, long term work with a psychotherapist can allow them the supportive space to process and heal from such past trauma, as well as working on positive strategies to prevent relapse in future. Importantly, we know that there are effective treatments for both trauma and addiction, and recovery is possible.
If you are affected by someone else’s addiction (currently, or in the past), there is also support available. For example, by speaking to your GP, accessing a support group or support phoneline, such as NACOA, or by speaking to a therapist.