Although the term ‘addiction’ is often used casually to describe various compulsive behaviours or habits - addiction is now recognised as a disorder of the brain’s reward, motivation and memory circuitry, resulting from alterations to gene expression within the nucleus accumbens area of the brain.
Brain scans have shown that the associated structures in the brains of addicts have characteristically physical differences to those of non-addicts.
Addictions usually fall in to one of two main categories – substance addictions (e.g. alcohol, prescription or ‘recreational’ drugs, tobacco) or behavioural (or process) addictions (e.g. gambling, sex, internet gaming, shopping or binge eating). Sometimes one form of addictive behaviour can predispose to or link to another e.g. drinking alcohol to excess can lead to drug use or risky sexual behaviours.
All addictions are characterised by recognisable behaviour patterns, including:-
Failure to abstain from or give up the activity, despite repeated attempts.
Continuing with the activity regardless of negative consequences in terms of health, financial and social responsibilities i.e. the behaviour is out of control.
Needing to increase intensity or frequency of activity to achieve similar desired effect i.e. the development of tolerance.
Avoiding usual activities & responsibilities (family, work, social occasions) in order to pursue the addiction, often in secret.
Pre-occupation with maintaining opportunities to continue with the activity, even if it means taking risks with health, finances or the law.
Cessation of the behaviour may produce physical symptoms associated with dependency (e.g. trembling, sweating, irregular heartbeat, insomnia constipation or diarrhoea and even hallucinations).
Those addictions that are not necessarily characterised by dependency may still result in emotional or mood -related symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, and irritability) as a result of being denied access to acting out the addictive behaviour.
Addictions usually develop as a coping strategy to deal with difficult situations or numb underlying painful emotions or memories. They provide pleasure or relief at the time, but every addiction has the capacity to greatly impact on self-esteem and confidence - inducing feelings such as shame, guilt, a sense of hopelessness and failure. Attempting to escape or nullify these feelings can lead to a self-perpetuating process or addiction cycle.
In some cases, the harm of an addiction may only be recognised when the individual in question experiences a crisis, hitting “rock bottom” This could be relationship breakdown, loss of employment, acute damage to health, unsupportable debt, criminal prosecution or when the addictive substance or behaviour is suddenly unavailable. This is typically when individuals become motivated to seek help, but it is better to be able to acknowledge the problem before the crisis point is reached.
Addiction recovery takes time, patience and a lot of support from loved ones. While some people are able to recover from an addiction without help, many people will require support in the form of specialised addiction treatment. Generally, the earlier the person receives treatment, the more successful the recovery process will be.
Dealing with addiction(s)
The first step in seeking help for addiction is usually to speak to someone about how you are feeling, including your GP. If you are the person with the problem, you may not feel comfortable speaking to friends or family but there are many other resources available to you.
Typically, addiction treatment is a combination of medication and talking therapies, which are designed to promote abstinence and help individuals manage both the physical and emotional consequences of the addiction.
Talking therapies/counselling for addiction
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is common in addiction counselling as it helps individuals to identify problematic behaviours and change them into positives. CBT also helps to address any underlying problems that often co-occur with an addiction. This is important in helping the individual understand the cause and take the steps in overcoming and coping with their issues.
Essentially, by interrupting the self-perpetuating cycle of an addiction, counselling provides a new way for people with addictions to think, feel and act - removing the troubled thinking and helping them to view difficult situations in a new light.
Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) is a type of talking treatment based on CBT that has been adapted to help people who experience emotions very intensely. The goal of DBT is to help people learn to manage difficult emotions, by allowing them to experience, recognise and accept them
Hypnotherapy for addiction aims to get to the root of the problem by inducing a state of heightened awareness in the patient. In this relaxed state, the patient is more receptive to suggestions and ideas that are compatible with their goals. A hypnotherapist will provide the support and guidance required to alter ingrained behavioural patterns, enabling a client to treat the underlying cause of their addictive behaviour and rebuild their emotional strength.
N.B. Hypnotherapy has been shown to be particularly effective in helping people to stop smoking.
Dealing with addiction may also involve aftercare support in the form of self-help groups and regular check-ups, which are designed to help people cope with life after recovery and manage potential triggers.