If you have an addiction, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 2 million people in the UK do. Read about types and causes of addiction and what treatments are available.

Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something, to the point where it could be harmful to you. Addiction is most commonly associated with gambling, drugs, alcohol and nicotine, but it’s possible to be addicted to anything, such as:

  • 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.
  • Computers: as computer use has increased, so too has computer addiction. People may spend hours each day and night surfing the internet or playing games while neglecting other aspects of their lives.
  • Solvents: ‘volatile substance abuse’ is when you inhale substances such as glue, aerosols, paint 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 in order to achieve a buzz. This is quickly followed by feelings of guilt, shame or despair.

Whatever a person is addicted to, they can’t control how they use it, and they may become dependent on it to get through daily life.

There are many reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to use the substances again. Gambling may result in a similar mental ‘high’ after a win, 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’. Because this can be unpleasant, it’s easier to carry on having or doing what you crave, and so the cycle continues. Often, an addiction gets out of control because you need more and more to satisfy a craving and achieve the ‘high’.

The strain of managing an addiction can seriously damage a person’s work and relationships. In the case of substance abuse (for example drugs and alcohol), an addiction can have serious psychological and physical effects.

Some studies suggest that addiction is genetic, but environmental factors, such as being brought up by someone with an addiction, are also thought to increase the risk. An addiction can be a way of blocking out difficult issues. Unemployment and poverty can trigger addiction, along with stress, and emotional or professional pressure.

Whatever the addiction, there are many ways you can seek help, including seeing your GP for advice, or contacting one of the charitable organisations set up to help people with addictions. We will help you find specific services in your area

  • Alcohol addiction services
  • Drug addiction services
  • Stop smoking services


When is it time to get help?
The sooner the better. Some people say you have to hit rock bottom before you’re ready to change, but the evidence shows that the earlier the intervention, the more successful it will be.

What can friends and family do?
Whether you’re a relative, friend or an employer, as soon as you detect a problem relating to addiction you should tell the person that you’ve noticed a worsening pattern in their drinking, drug use, mood or physical health. If this is said in an accusing way, the person is likely to be defensive and will distance themselves. The more positive and constructive you are, the more likely it is that you will be able to help the addicted person and get them into treatment.

The evidence for the benefit of support from people close to the addict is so strong that many specialist services offer treatment that’s based on recruiting a network of family and friends. It’s important that the person with drug and alcohol problems is helped by people who are concerned, constructive and who don’t have problems themselves.

Who should the person go to first?

A GP can refer an addicted person at any stage, not just when they’re willing to stop. GPs can give advice about sensible drinking, and use their own surgery’s resources, such as nurses or counsellors. GPs may also recommend national helplines, and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

These groups enable many people to deal with their addiction. In addition, there are specialist NHS agencies, such as the Leeds Addiction Unit, that will see people, even if they’re not ready to stop. These units encourage people to talk about their addiction and try to change their motivation.

How is an addict treated?
Treatment is adapted to suit the individual. There are several treatments that are proven to work. These mainly combine talking therapies with medication. Cognitive behavioural treatments are typically used because they work very well with addiction problems.

Professionals will discuss how the addicted person sees their life in the future, what obstacles they feel they face in changing, and what methods they think will help them to deal with those obstacles. Then they can identify the situations the addicted person will find difficult, and make plans to deal with those situations. Through this process, they can set the target, which is ultimately abstinence.

Once you’ve identified the target and what the person needs to do to reach it, you set up all the resources available. As well as treatment agencies, resources include family and friends who support change. You want people who won’t encourage the person to “just have one drink because it won’t matter” but instead offer to take them to the cinema.

When people engage in dependent behaviour, their whole lifestyle revolves around using and obtaining the substance, and dealing with the after-effects. Therefore, changing that lifestyle is a very big step. Often the hardest part is not stopping the addiction but maintaining the change.

How do self-help groups and residential rehab work? 
Some self-help groups are extremely useful because they provide a network, often in the absence of family and friends. Groups are very useful for giving support during aftercare.

Residential rehabilitation helps many people to overcome the initial phases of withdrawal and to start making lifestyle changes that will allow them to continue in recovery.

Do the self-help or home-based recovery programmes work?
Most definitely. People are more likely to find a way to recovery that suits them if there’s a wide range of options available. People don’t respond well when they feel they’re being pushed into a corner. However, a self-help manual can rarely replace being with supportive people in a social setting that rewards abstinence or control.

Does recovery always have to mean abstinence?
For a minority of people with moderate drinking problems, a controlled drinking goal is possible. However, most people at treatment centres need to aim for abstinence. With heroin and cocaine, abstinence is the only option.

How does an addict guard against relapse?
Lots of ways. One would be removing or avoiding the triggers of addiction. Another might be making contact with new people who don’t use drugs. That’s a big step to take, and some will advise the opposite, saying it’s important to stick with people who are in recovery because they understand and can offer support. This is fine as long as they’re supporting your abstinence rather than stimulating your addiction.

In the case of drug users, the people who recover successfully are the ones who change their drug-using surroundings. This can be very difficult, especially if their partner is a drug user (unless they change their habit too).

It’s also important for recovering addicts to change their activities so that they have alternative ways of feeling rewarded, alternative ways of coping with feeling down or lonely and alternative ways of having a good time. Very often, people get into drug and alcohol addiction simply to relax and enjoy themselves, but then they lose control. When that happens, they have to find alternative ways to relax.