If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, this guide will help you understand what it is, and how to overcome it. Addiction will not go away on its own, and in many cases will continue to get worse until treatment is sought. We explore the different types of addictions and how to spot the signs & symptoms, we also cover the various treatment options available in the UK so that you can make an informed decision on how to tackle it.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a psychological phenomena involving unhealthy attachments to substances or behaviours, which often results in risky behaviours. In addition, addiction also refers to habitual use of a substance such as alcohol, which over time leads to physical dependence.

People who are struggling with addiction have a compulsive need for their drug or behaviour of choice and feel that they need it in order to cope with life.

It affects the brain by changing its chemical balance and affecting areas that control emotion, memory, decision-making and motivation (Dopamine).

Over time the brain becomes adapted to these reward seeking behaviours, leading to tolerance and more risky behaviour (i.e. gambling higher stakes or taking more of a substance to get the same high).

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How does Addiction Differ from Abuse?

The line between addiction & abuse is difficult to define, but it is possible to abuse substances or behaviours without developing addiction.

Not everyone who abuses substances or gambles impulsively develops addiction, the difference being is that those who have developed addiction cannot stop despite negative consequences, and often partake in their addictive activity daily, at the expense of other commitments such as family, work or finances.

In the context of prescription drugs, prescription drug abuse is defined as ‘taking more than the prescribed dosage’, or taking medication that is not prescribed for you by a GP.

Many individuals drink or take drugs recreationally, such as parties, clubs or raves, and are able to control their use during the week or when they feel that a break is necessary. However, where addiction has formed, the ability to stop or control use is difficult, and individuals will often conceal their addiction or deny that a problem exists.

Facts Around Addiction in the UK

  • In 2015, there were over 8,000 casualties from drink driving
  • 100,000 people suffer from alcoholism in the UK, but less than one-fifth receive help
  • Tramadol, a prescription opiate was responsible for 240 deaths in the UK (2014), and is responsible for 40% of drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland
  • Only 3% of problem gamblers seek help in the UK
  • Problem gambling and financial strain results in higher rates of suicide compared with substance related additions

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Types of Addiction

Substance Addictions

Substance abuse is the use of a substance in a way that leads to problems for either the individual or wider society. Over time, people who abuse substances may develop an addiction to them. Both legal and illicit drugs can lead to addiction.

  • Alcohol –
    Alcohol-related problems, including addiction, cost the United Kingdom government around £24 billion a year, which is the equivalent of 2.5% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product. In 2015 it was estimated that one in six women and one in twelve men were dependent on alcohol.

    In addition to being a risk factor for many diseases, alcohol can cause many complications from neurological conditions such as dementia to a heart attack.

  • Opiates –
    Opiates are an addictive drug that includes opium, heroin, hydrocodone and morphine. Opiate addiction has caused numerous deaths throughout the world. Opiates affect the brain’s reward system which causes withdrawal symptoms when someone stops taking them. When opiates are taken in high doses, they slow down breathing and reduce oxygen to the brain, which can result in death.
  • Benzodiazepines –
    These are prescription drugs which are used to treat anxiety, insomnia and alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines can cause difficult side effects, including drowsiness, amnesia, confusion and depression. Long-term use of benzodiazepines can lead to dependence and addiction. Benzodiazepines despite being legal when prescribed, can result in some of the worst withdrawal symptoms when left unmanaged.
  • Stimulants –
    Stimulants are drugs that act on the nervous system to increase activity. Cocaine, for example, causes pleasant feelings of euphoria by releasing large amounts of dopamine in the brain, which is also released in response to any pleasurable experience. Stimulants can cause several serious side effects, including sleep disorders and heart problems. Stimulants can also be prescribed for conditions such as ADHD. These medications can be abused by students to help them focus during study.
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Behavioural Addictions

A behavioural addiction is a type of addiction in which a person craves a reward-based stimulus. In other words, a person becomes dependent on the rewards that the stimulus provides.

There are various types of behavioural addictions.

Problem Gambling

Problem gambling is a type of behavioural addiction that involves repetitive, maladaptive gambling behaviour that causes significant distress or impairment in work or home life.

Many people who are addicted to gambling become preoccupied with the compulsion to gamble and experience serious consequences due to their actions. Gambling can involve activities like horse racing, lotteries, bingo and card games. It can also involve activities such as online poker, baccarat and roulette.

This behaviour can quickly become a problem that can affect one’s health, relationships, finances and work.

In the UK there are over 3 million people who claim to be addicted to gambling. The National Problem Gambling Foundation states that people from all backgrounds engage in gambling, but not everyone is a problem gambler. Men tend to engage in problem gambling more often than women. In fact, 10% of men and 20% of women gamble on a regular basis.

Work addiction

Work addiction is a type of behavioural addiction. It may be defined as a compulsive need for work at the expense of other life priorities.

According to the Taconic Research Inc., more than one billion people work in the modern workforce. Work addiction can affect both genders, young and old, male and female, white collar workers and blue collar workers, office employees and factory workers. This means that any person can suffer from work addiction.

Sex addiction

Sex addiction is a type of behavioural addiction characterised by obsessive sexual thoughts and desires that lead to compulsive sexual behaviour. Sex addiction affects both men and women but is more prevalent in males. Sex addiction leads to toxic relationships and higher rates of sexually transmitted infections.

Addiction, Recovery & COVID-19: Coming out of Lockdown

How does Addiction Develop?

The development of addiction depends on several factors including genetics, psychological mechanisms and environmental factors. Many studies have been done to try to understand why people develop addictions and how they can be treated successfully.

  1. Trauma & Abuse in Childhood –

    Childhood abuse and neglect is one of the most important factors in the development of addiction. Studies show that children who experience physical and sexual abuse may be more likely to develop an addiction later on.

    Children who are neglected or abused are more likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol as adults. Children can develop addictions for a variety of reasons, including being raised in dysfunctional environments, being bullies themselves, witnessing family violence or being victimised by abusive people.

  2. Genetics –

    Addiction is part of the human condition, passing along in the genes that make up each person. It has been suggested that addiction is about seven times more likely to occur in identical twins than nonidentical twins. Since identical twins share nearly 100 per cent of their DNA, it can be assumed that they also share their addiction tendencies. This would mean people who are addicted are predisposed to addiction, but this can also result from environmental factors such as upbringing and relationships.

    For example, addiction may run in the family through genetics, but it can be affected by nurture, such as high-pressure parenting and neglectful/toxic parenting.

  3. Environmental factors –

    Stress can affect someone’s ability to make decisions because it interferes with signals coming from their frontal lobe that stimulate them to make good decisions.

    It has been suggested that stress causes the release of hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that affect brain functioning. Consequently, the person’s decision-making ability is affected and they feel overwhelmed by their environment.

  4. Pre-existing Mental Health Problems –

    While mental health problems can be result of genetic and environmental factors, it is worth noting that those who struggle with mental health problems are far more likely to develop addiction (Dual Diagnosis). Those struggling may take drugs, drink or partake in risky behaviours as a way of masking their symptoms, or to self-medicate.

Sign & Symptoms of Addiction:

Although addiction can be highly destructive, it can be treated.

As with any serious condition, signs and symptoms of addiction should always be taken seriously, the earlier treatment can be sought the better.

Signs and symptoms of addiction can be divided into physical and psychological, as well as behavioural.

Physical symptoms of addiction will depend upon the type of addiction. Different drugs result in different effects on the body and mind.

Psychological symptoms are universal, and include denial, social withdrawal, agitation, and obsessive thoughts around the addictive behaviour. Someone with an addiction may also experience worsening of clinical depression or anxiety.

Can Addiction be Cured?

Addiction occurs due to a combination of factors including biological, psychological and environmental factors. The best treatment for addiction is holistic therapy.

Holistic therapy should take the form of behavioural therapy (such as CBT), and Trauma therapy, to help individuals understand the root causes of addictive behaviours.

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Addiction Treatment Options in the UK

In the UK, treatment for addiction can be carried out in a range of different settings, including specialist private clinics and NHS services.

In addition, there are various support groups throughout the UK that can help with relapse prevention and ongoing support.

Residential Rehab

Residential rehab centres are typically privately funded, individuals will stay at a treatment facility for the duration of the programme. During a residential programme, individuals will take part in a recovery programme which consists of individual and group therapy, provided by addiction specialists.

If you are seeking treatment for drug addiction or treatment for alcohol addiction, the rehab centre will provide a medical assessment to understand whether a medical detox is required before therapy can commence. A medical detox will be performed by medical professionals in a safe and secure environment.

The duration of residential treatment can vary from a few weeks to many months; the average length in the UK is 4-12 weeks.

One of the major benefits of residential treatment is that individuals can focus on recovery without temptation, access to drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviours will be prevented.

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Outpatient Programmes

Outpatient programmes are designed for those who are unable to attend a residential rehab facility, either due to work commitments or finances. However, residential treatment could save money in the long run, as the cost of maintaining an addiction would outweigh any costs of treatment.

The NHS and reputable charities throughout the UK, offer outpatient services.

Outpatient services are limited in capacity and treatment options, and waiting lists for these services can be a challenge for those with severe dependencies.

Outpatient treatment can be combined with community services, such as family therapy or intensive counselling.

Private counselling can be an alternative to free addiction services, however in any event, individuals will remain vulnerable to their environment, with easy access to drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviours such as gambling.

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous can be found throughout the UK. Support groups also exist for families affected by addition.

Support groups (except for SMART), follow the 12 step model and continue to provide immense value for those in recovery. Regardless of the type of addiction treatment pursued, support groups should be part of any long-term recovery and relapse prevention plan.

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