What is Addiction?

What is addiction?

If you feel you might have an addiction, you're not alone. The charity Action on Addiction have stated that one in three of us are addicted to something.

Addiction is defined loosely as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.  There are a number of more specific definitions from counselling research and psychology, one of which is shown below.

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterised by compulsive substance (drugs, alcohol etc.) seeking and use, despite harmful consequences on health and social life, and despite efforts to stop using it.

Addiction is most commonly associated with drugs, alcohol, nicotine or gambling, but it's possible to be addicted to just about anything, including:

  • work – workaholics are obsessed with their work to the extent that they suffer physical exhaustion. If your relationship, family and social life are suffering and you never take holidays, you may be a work addict.
  • internet – as computer and mobile phone use has increased, so too have computer and internet addictions. People may spend hours each day and night surfing the internet or gaming while neglecting other aspects of their lives.
  • solvents – volatile substance abuse is when you inhale substances such as glue, aerosols, petrol or lighter fuel to give you a feeling of intoxication. Solvent abuse can be fatal.
  • shopping – shopping becomes an addiction when you buy things you don't need or want to achieve a buzz. This is quickly followed by feelings of guilt, shame, despair and an overwhelming sense of emptiness that can never be filled. 

It has been said that there are as many different types of addictions as there are people.    

What causes addictions?

There are lots of causes for addiction. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, once the addiction ‘takes hold’, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be satisfying at first as they take away feelings of fear and anxiety, creating an overwhelming urge to repeat the experience.

Gambling may result in a similar mental ‘high’, followed by a strong urge to try again and recreate that feeling. This can develop into a habit that becomes very hard to stop.

Being addicted to something means that not having it causes withdrawal symptoms, or a ‘come down’. These symptoms can be physical, such as ‘the shakes’, or emotional, where the sufferer feels heightened anxiety or other extreme emotions.  One of the common characteristics running through almost all addictions, whether substance or behavior-based, is a feeling of ‘emptiness’ in the sufferer that can only be filled (temporarily) by use of the substance or the acting out of the behavior.  Because this can be unpleasant, it seems easier to carry on having or doing what takes away these feelings, and so the cycle continues.  One of the most significant symptoms of addiction is that it is a progressive illness, i.e. left untreated, it always gets worse over time. 

How addictions can affect you

The strain of managing an addiction can seriously affect all aspects of your life. In the case of substance abuse (for example, drugs and alcohol), an addiction can have serious psychological and physical effects.

Some studies have suggested that addictions may have a genetic element, however, recent studies have suggested that the seeds of later addiction can be sown by environmental factors in early life, such as not being given safe and nurturing conditions by caregivers in childhood.  The sufferer is very likely to be unaware of this until they begin recovery and have an opportunity to discuss their feelings with someone who will empathise with them and won’t judge them.  Many sufferers state that they just weren’t able to verbalise how they felt and could only describe themselves as ‘feeling empty’, or ‘feeling different to other people’.    

An addiction can be a way of blocking out difficult feelings such as anxiety, fear, lack of self-esteem or relationship issues, where the substance or addictive behavior is a way of helping the sufferer feel ‘normal’.   

Getting help for addictions

Addiction is a treatable condition and is often described as a ‘talking illness’, meaning it can be very responsive to counselling.  In my own counselling practice, I work very well with clients who are suffering from addiction.  I will give you the time and space to explore the feelings and emotions that are underlying the addiction.  The key to recovery from addiction is forming understanding relationships, and often this begins with the relationship between yourself and your counsellor.  I believe that the journalist and writer Johann Hari sums this up very well when he says;

‘The Opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection’. 

Donald Ashburn