Addiction is a strong, uncontrollable need to take drugs, drink alcohol or carry out a particular activity, such as gambling.

It becomes the most important thing in your life and leads to problems at home, work and school.

There's no single reason why addictions develop. Some people experience particularly intense feelings for pleasurable or relaxing activities, such as:

This can lead to a strong desire to repeat these activities more often.

From enjoyment to addiction

Many people regularly use addictive substances or engage in potentially addictive activities without having major problems.

However, in some people it can cause damaging physical and psychological effects, as their behaviour becomes more frequent and intense and turns into an addiction. This occurs as a result of chemical changes in the brain.

If you carry on using the substance or engaging in the behaviour, your brain and body become tolerant and you need more drugs, or spend more time on the behaviour to get the same effect. What started out as something you can control develops into an uncontrollable need or addiction.

If you try to stop, you'll experience physical or psychological withdrawal symptoms, or both. Withdrawal symptoms are wide ranging and vary depending on the substance involved, but generally you'll experience:

  • feelings of discomfort
  • distress
  • an intense craving for the substance

Withdrawal from alcohol is often particularly difficult because it can sometimes be complicated by seizures (fits) and hallucinations.

Treating addiction

There are many organisations that provide help in treating addictions. Your GP is a good first point of contact. They'll be able to provide you with help and advice, and can recommend specialist addiction services both nationally and locally.

Read more information about overcoming addiction.

Treatment for addiction focuses on the individual and their needs. Talking therapies and medication are recommended treatments. The most effective talking therapies for treating addiction include:

MET is a counselling technique that can help you overcome any mixed feelings you have about taking part in a treatment programme and stopping your drug use.

It aims to draw out self-motivational statements. A plan for change can then be made based on a commitment to move forward and find a solution to the problem.

Treatment usually starts by encouraging you to think about how you want to change. It's important your counsellor is non-judgemental and a supportive listener. You need to believe that you want to – and can – overcome your addiction and your life will be better as a result.

An addiction counsellor will discuss:

  • how you see your life in the future
  • what obstacles you feel you face as you work towards changing
  • what you think will help you deal with those obstacles

The addiction counsellor will also help you understand that stopping a drug or behaviour may involve major lifestyle changes and support will be needed in the long term to prevent relapse.

It's important to involve family and friends in supporting you to overcome your addiction.

At-risk groups

You're more at risk of developing an addiction if:

  • other members of your family have addiction problems
  • you experienced stress or abuse while growing up
  • you have mental health problems
  • you have unemployment and financial worries
  • you're experiencing relationship problems

Addictive behaviour often occurs when people try to deal with or forget about these difficult issues.

Page last reviewed: 13/08/2015

Next review due: 13/08/2017