Addiction refers to a difficulty in controlling certain repetitive behaviours to the extent that they have harmful consequences. They are the result of powerful compulsions to use and do certain things excessively, often out of a need to escape from upsetting emotions or situations. These compulsions can trigger a self-perpetuating process, which can cause pain and suffering not only for those with the problem, but for their loved ones too.

On this page we will explore addictions in more detail. From the different types of addiction and how to support a loved one, to what help is available. We’ll also explore addiction counselling, and the benefits of seeking professional support.

Addictions can develop from what may be seen as fairly innocent, or at least common social habits. Drinking alcohol, gambling, eating, having sex and using the internet can all turn from what is considered a common activity, to a darker, more destructive compulsion.

Addictions may come from the way these activities and habits make people feel, both emotionally and physically. They can be pleasurable - a form of escapism for someone who perhaps is going through a difficult time. But this moment of pleasure can trigger a powerful need to continue the habit or activity, over and over, in order to feel that way again. 

In many cases, people with addictions are not aware of the problem, nor are they aware of the impact it is having on their lives, or on the lives of those around them. If the addiction has come from a trauma - perhaps a past event, an accident or a mental health issue, they may be unable to break out of the addiction on their own, and more support will be needed.

For many, it’s not as easy as stopping the habit. Addiction recovery takes time, patience and a lot of support from loved ones. The person will need to take the steps to understand what may have caused the addiction and learn how to not only overcome it but manage their feelings for the future.

Addiction treatment, such as counselling, is crucial for helping people recognise the problem and take the steps to recovery. 

What is the difference between habit and addiction?

An addiction is defined as a habit that has become out of control, to the extent that the individual is dependent on it for coping with everyday life. Addictions typically will have negative effects on the person’s emotional well-being and physical health, while also affecting those around them.

The psychological link, in particular, is what separates addition from habit. A habit is something people may do for fun, to relax or as a way of socialising. People can choose to stop a habit, and while it may take some time, can stop successfully. Addiction, however, can be an overwhelming need or compulsion to complete the act regularly, regardless of the time or place, in order to achieve the high. In short, a habit can be controlled, while an addiction cannot.

Common addictions

Drug addiction

I was using cocaine against my will. I took days off work to isolate myself and use it. I would sit there, gram after gram, to try and fill this feeling of emptiness and stress inside of me.

- Edward's story.

Drug abuse or addiction is an unhealthy dependence on a medication or vocational drug. Characterised by an intense psychological and physical dependency that develops when persistent use triggers changes in the brain, recovery is possible.


Gambling is an activity where people take part in a game by placing something of monetary value at risk in order to win money or a prize. While a common pastime for many, gambling can in some cases develop into an unhealthy habit that can lead to not only a financial crisis, but poor health and well-being.

Sex addiction

Sex addiction is typically characterised by compulsive sexual thoughts and acts. While for most people these behaviours will sit within everyday life without causing any issues, for others these urges become uncontrollable and addictive behaviour can develop - often leading to personal, financial and professional problems.

Problem drinking

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence, describes the repeated use of and dependence on alcoholic substances. Thought to be caused by cognitive and physiological dependence. It can lead to extensive tissue damage and disease across the body.

Internet addiction

Internet addiction is described as an impulse control issue where users may develop an unhealthy emotional attachment to online friends, activities and the worlds they can create online. Internet addiction like other addictions can have a massive impact on a person’s well-being, including their mental and physical health, relationships and social lives.


Smoking is one of the greatest causes of illness and premature death in the UK. Quitting smoking is a big challenge for a person to face, and they will often need more than just willpower. There are many options now available; from campaigns such as Stoptober and local support groups, to medications and treatments, such as counselling and hypnotherapy.

Getting help 

In some cases, the harm of an addiction may only be recognised when the individual in question experiences a crisis - either as a result of a major life consequence or when the addictive substance or behaviour is suddenly unavailable. This is typically what motivates individuals to seek help, but there are those who will be able to kick-start their recovery long before the problem reaches crisis point.

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.

The first step in seeking help for addiction is usually to speak to someone about how you are feeling. If you are the person with the problem, you may not feel comfortable speaking to friends or family, but know that there are many other resources available to you.

You may also want to consider visiting your doctor, who can answer any questions you may have about your addiction, and explain the next steps you can take.

Addiction is less about giving up something and more about gaining something, that something is a more meaningful, authentic and connected life. Addiction takes things, recovery gives them back, including; self-esteem, love for and from self and others, meaning, passion, ability to deal with life’s challenges, healing, and hope.

- Counsellor Andrew Harvey.

There are several treatments said to be effective in helping people overcome their addictions. But of course, everyone is different, so treatments are tailored to the individual and their particular addiction. 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.

Treatment 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.

Addiction counselling

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 addition. 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. While mainly used to treat issues associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD), it is becoming more widely used to treat a number of different concerns. 

Counsellor Claire Sainsbury explains more about dialectical behavioural therapy:

The goal of DBT is to help people have increasing control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Unhealthy thinking patterns can easily overwhelm someone who is battling an addiction of some sort, to the extent that they become overwhelming and over-powerful, influencing a person’s feelings and behavioural urges.

So DBT includes the practice of mindfulness, to help you learn how to “quieten” your mind and to have more control over what happens as a result of a “thought.” If you can learn the skill of “noticing” what thoughts you are having as if you are separate from your thoughts, then you might be able to have greater choice over what happens next.

Spotting the signs of an addiction

There are many signs of an addiction. While these may vary depending on the substance or activity, every addiction has the capacity to greatly impact self-esteem and confidence - inducing troublesome feelings such as shame, guilt, a sense of hopelessness and failure. Everyone is different and some people may be better at hiding their addiction, or they may not be aware it has become a problem, but certain behaviour changes can indicate a problem.

Common behaviours and signs of a possible addiction include:

  • withdrawing from social activities or neglecting relationships
  • borrowing money or selling possessions in order to fund their addiction
  • attempting to hide or lie about the habit
  • exhibiting frequent mood swings
  • missing work, school or social events
  • losing interest in activities or hobbies they previously enjoyed

However, with addictions being so varied - from gambling to drug abuse - signs of an addiction can be more or less obvious in people. For more information on the different types of addictions and the warning signs of each, please visit our fact-sheets.

Worried about a friend?

If you’re worried about someone you know, support is available. It’s difficult to know if someone has a problem - not all addictions are easy to detect and often, people will try to hide their behaviour from friends and family. 

Remember that there are ways you can help them, as well as helping yourself. Coping with a loved one who is suffering can be overwhelming, and can put a lot of tension on your relationship, but be supportive and let them know you are there to help them.

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