Addiction is a word that we hear all the time. We might say that we are 'addicted to Facebook', 'addicted to chocolate' or 'addicted to a new TV show'. But do we mean that we are actually addicted? Or are we just saying that we like Facebook, love chocolate and are enjoying a new TV show?
Addiction is a strong need to engage in a behaviour or ingest a substance, even if this behaviour or substance is harmful. Although the word 'addiction' is most commonly associated with taking drugs, alcohol and smoking, it is possible to be addicted to many other things, for example, shopping, work or exercise, and even Facebook or chocolate.
Those who are addicted to something feel they have no control over their desire to do something, and that they need to continue engaging in this behaviour in order to function. They also feel that stopping would have extreme psychological and physiological consequences. After engaging in the addictive behaviour, they often feel guilt, shame or despair.
Many addictions start as habits, which are not harmful. A habit is done by choice, and the person can choose to stop. When the person becomes unable to control their behaviour because of the psychological or physiological effects of their addictive behaviour, the habit becomes an addiction.
When someone is addicted, they often develop tolerance to the substance. For example, someone who is addicted to alcohol may at first need a small amount of alcohol to feel better, but over time, they need more and more to achieve the same effect. It may even be that after a long time, they no longer even feel pleasure when they drink, but continue to do so because the withdrawal symptoms they experience when they don’t drink are so unpleasant.
Long-term addiction can have many negative consequences, these can be:
The addicted person may struggle to connect with their friends, family and those around them. Their relationships may break down as their addiction causes them to engage in behaviours which others find unacceptable.
The addict may be impulsive, anxious, paranoid, irritable and more sensitive to stress than usual.
The actions that an addict will go to in order to achieve the 'high' they are seeking may be extreme. They may readjust their lives in order to get the thing they are addicted to, and then have to deal with the consequences later, and may also find it hard to engage in the activities they enjoyed before they became addicted. Some people even turn to crime in order to finance their addiction, or engage in illegal activity related to their addiction (for example, drink driving). These behavioural changes can lead to other issues, such as loss of money, employment and even a place to live.
The health problems associated with addiction depend on what the person is addicted to, but can include cardiovascular problems, liver failure and even death.
As addictive substances feel different to an addicted person than they do to someone who a non-addict, it can be hard for non-addicts to understand why the addict continues to engaging in the behaviour. The addicted person also often denies that they have a problem.
Addiction is a treatable condition, and overcoming it is a process that requires dedication, effort and the right support.
Recognising that you have a problem is the first step. Try evaluating your behaviour over the past few months, and think about the effects your addiction is having on your life. Writing a list of these effects could be useful. You could then ask a friend or someone close to you to write the same list, and see if your perception of your behaviour is the same as theirs.
Treatment for addictions depends on the individual and the type of addiction they have, but often involves a combination of talking therapy and medication.
Changing your lifestyle is one of the biggest challenges involved in overcoming addiction, but doing so will help you to stop permanently, and decreases your risk of relapse. Changing your lifestyle may involve changing your surroundings, the people you spend your time with and your daily routine. You’ll also need to identify the things you enjoy doing that are unrelated to your addiction, and try to make these a bigger part of your life.
Most of all, you’ll need support from those who care for you, and from the right professional services. A good first step would be to visit your GP. There are also a number of services to help those who are addicted that are available on the NHS. You can search for services near you to help with overcoming addiction, or for services to help you stop taking drugs or give up smoking (link to smoking page).