Addiction is a craving for a substance or behaviour, finding temporary relief or pleasure in using or engaging in it, while suffering negative consequences or harm as a result and still continuing, unable to give it up.
Addiction is most commonly associated with alcohol, drugs, gambling and smoking, but it’s possible to be addicted to just about anything, including pornography, internet use, even work.
What are the causes of addiction?
There are lots of reasons why addictions begin.
Substances like drugs or alcohol all affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can feel beneficial to the user and create a powerful urge to use the substances again. Other activities like gambling, shopping or even scrolling on the phone can create a similar “high” as the brain’s reward centre is activated, followed by a strong urge to continue, to recreate or maintain that feeling.
Being addicted to something means that not having it causes mental or physical discomfort, withdrawal symptoms, or a “come down”, which can become destressing. It then becomes easier to keep taking a substance or continuing the behaviour in order to alleviate those symptoms.
Over time the brain’s reward centre becomes overstimulated, and it adapts by recalibrating the amount of enjoyment it perceives from the use or behaviour to cope with being flooded. It generally means that the substance or behaviour has less of an effect due to a weaker response by the brain’s reward centre. That’s why over time you may need more of what you’re addicted to, creating a cycle of dependence.
Addictions & Mental Health
Addictions can serve a function for people, such as self-medicating physical, mental or emotional pain or discomfort.
Behaviours such as substance misuse, can be a way of blocking out difficult or unresolved thoughts, issues, and memories, or indeed anxieties about the future. Unemployment and poverty are big triggers for addiction, along with stress and emotional or professional pressure.
According to addiction expert and author, Dr Gabor Maté, addiction can be an attempt to solve a problem, “addictions always serve a function in the general sense, make you feel more in control in your life. People self-medicate anxiety with alcohol. People self-medicate depression with drugs and behaviours”.
Understanding what the addiction does for the individual is often the first step to breaking the cycle. This is why therapy is so beneficial to those struggling with addiction and indeed those in recovery.
What are the effects of addiction?
The strain of managing an addiction can seriously damage your work life and relationships. In the case of substance misuse (for example, drugs and alcohol), an addiction can have serious psychological and physical effects.
Some studies suggest a person’s risk of becoming addicted is partly genetic, but environmental factors, such as being around other people with addictions, are also thought to increase the risk.
The signs and symptoms of addictions can vary from person to person and can also depend on the type of addiction that you are suffering from.
Signs & Symptoms
However, there are several signs and symptoms that are common to most types of addiction:
- Mental effects include; Mood swings, defensiveness, agitation, low self-esteem and self-worth, and feelings of hopelessness.
- Social/behavioural effects, such as; secretive or dishonest behaviour, poor performance and/or attendance at work, losing interest in activities, hobbies or events that were once important to you and continuing to use the substance, or engage in the behaviours, despite the negative consequences.
- Physical effects including; lack of concern over physical appearance, personal hygiene, disrupted sleep patterns, loss of appetite and overall declining health.
How to address addiction?
- Accepting that you have an addiction issue
- Reflecting on how that addiction has impacted your life
- Believing that overcoming addiction is possible for you (despite any failed attempts)
- Finding a sober support network and seeking professional help
- Be willing to make a change – lifestyle, environment, social circles, routine etc
- By identifying triggers and developing healthier coping strategies
- Finding ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine
- Start practicing self-compassion
Self-compassion is one of the most important factors in recovery from addiction.
Recovery is often complicated by shame or regret over things done during active addiction. We are usually much harder on ourselves than we would ever be on other people, often internalizing the criticism we received as children from parents, teachers, and peers.
Self-compassion involves being as kind to yourself as you would want to be to a good friend. It is common for those caught up in addiction to be full of self-loathing, which can continue even after the person has become abstinent.
Various studies, notably by Kristin Neff, Ph.D, have found that self-compassion protects mental health and wellbeing, that is it’s associated with better emotional regulation, and it mitigates the damage caused by adverse childhood experiences.
Self-compassion is related to less drug and alcohol use and, people who do develop severe addiction problems, have better recovery outcomes when they have more self-compassion. These outcomes include longer periods of abstinence and fewer negative emotions such as stress, depression, and anxiety.
Resources and help are available if you, or someone you care about is concerned about addiction;
- To find help with addiction near you browse our Addictions directory.
- The NHS website has information that may be helpful in your journey to recovery.
- There are statutory addictions services available all over Northern Ireland, which usually require a referral from your GP or a medical professional but it’s a good place to discover the services that are available.