What is addiction?

Addiction can be defined as a persistent, compulsive dependence on a substance or behaviour, which may be physical or psychological, or a mixture of both. According to the charity Action on Addiction, one in three of us is addicted to something. Whilst addiction is most commonly associated with drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling, people can become addicted to almost anything, including work, shopping, and the internet. When a person’s behaviour or use of a substance begins to compromise other responsibilities, such as work, relationships or health, it is a strong warning sign that the activity is getting out of hand and changes need to be made.  

An addiction is physical when a user’s body develops increased tolerance for a substance and experiences withdrawal symptoms if it is not present. Whether or not this happens depends mainly on the type of substance used: heroin, alcohol, benzodiazepines and opiate-based ‘prescription drugs’ such as codeine all lead to a physical dependence if used in sufficient quantities, regardless of the user’s motivation for taking them. A psychological addiction, on the other hand, is an emotional or mental dependence on a substance or behaviour. In this case no physical withdrawal symptoms take place; however the addict may experience agitation, anxiety and depression when not using.  Both physical and psychological addictions easily get out of control as people find they need more and more of the ‘high’ in order to satisfy their craving.

While many substances and behaviours have the potential to become addictive, it is fairly rare for someone to develop a really problematic habit without some underlying or pre-existing issues. What may have begun as recreational substance use or a socially accepted behaviour such as internet use can get out of hand as a result of a specific trigger such as stress, emotional distress or professional pressure, poverty or unemployment. In cases like these, the substance or behaviour becomes a way of coping with, or blocking out, painful feelings.

A person may be more susceptible to developing a dependency if they have mental health problems, if a member of their family suffers from addiction, or if they experienced stress and/or abuse in formative years.

It is important to remember that addiction is not simply caused by pleasure-seeking, nor is it a reflection of someone’s character or morality.

Dealing with a dependency can cause serious strain on relationships and work, as well as having an impact on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the addicted person. It often brings with it feelings of guilt, shame and failure, and in many cases, a person may be in denial or even unaware of their own problem.


Therapy can help you get over your addiction



How can counselling help with addiction?

Whatever the addiction, you can get help. There is evidence to suggest that the sooner the issue is addressed, the more likely you are to recover, so it is important to seek help. In some cases, an addiction may only be recognised after a moment of crisis such as the breakdown of a relationship or when the substance is removed, at which times it is important to have support.  

Even if/when the physical substance or behaviour is removed, the addicted person will still need support to address the triggers and lifestyle choices which enabled the addiction and may continue to create opportunities for relapse.

Counselling can help by encouraging the addicted person to see that they can learn to cope with life without carrying out their addictive behaviour. A specialist counsellor will tailor treatment to meet the individual's needs, to best support them in resolving the psychological and emotional causes and consequences of their habit. Counselling can be an invaluable support, even if the affected person has stopped their addictive behaviour, as it provides a space which encourages the building and maintenance of health emotional and psychological thoughts and reactions, thus helping to prevent the addiction from gaining control again. Family or couple counselling can offer additional support, helping to repair relationships which have been damaged as a result of the addiction.

Find an addiction counsellor



Last updated 13 April 2016