There are many reasons why someone may start using drugs, from curiosity and peer pressure to seeing family members use and trying to cope with difficult emotions. For some people, drug abuse spirals into addiction. When this happens, getting and using drugs becomes an all-consuming activity that can affect both physical health and mental health.
Understanding drug addiction
When you have an addiction to drugs, you’ll find you can’t resist the urge to use them regardless of how much harm they cause you. You may have chosen to take a drug to see how it feels, and then continue to use it because you like the way it makes you feel. Alternatively, you may have been prescribed a drug to help you (with pain for example) but find it difficult to stop, even if your pain has subsided.
Drug abuse, over time, can affect the brain and lead to unhealthy and damaging behaviours. Not everyone who takes drugs will develop an addiction. Some drugs are more addictive than others, but there are a number of other factors that go into the likelihood of someone developing an addiction.
Who’s likely to be affected?
Because everyone’s body and brain are different, everyone will react to drugs differently. There are, however, some factors that can increase your likelihood of developing an addiction. These include:
Family history: Genetics do have a part to play when it comes to addiction. If your parents or siblings have addiction problems, you are likely to be more prone to addiction.
Drug use at an early age: As our brains are still growing when we’re young, taking drugs at an early age can have a big impact and may make you more likely to develop an addiction when you get older.
Existing mental health conditions: If you’re already struggling with a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, you may be more prone to turning to drug abuse to make you feel better. This can become an unhealthy coping mechanism and lead to addiction.
Relationship difficulties: If you’ve grown up with a troubled family life and you don’t have a strong support system, you may be more likely to become addicted to drugs.
Trauma: Experiencing trauma can lead people to use drugs as a way of coping. If you've experienced trauma and have a predisposition to addiction, you may be especially vulnerable.
After my brother’s death, I masked the trauma with alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. My family life had changed, we were drifting apart, and it felt like we were all walking around in a daze.
- Read Steve's story.
How drugs affect the brain
Our brains are wired to repeat experiences you find enjoyable, motivating you to do them again and again. Drugs can be so addictive because they target the brain’s reward system. When you take them, your brain becomes flooded with dopamine (the feel-good hormone) which triggers an intense feeling of pleasure.
This makes you want to take the drug again to repeat the experience. As you continue to do this, your brain gets used to the extra dopamine being released, meaning you need more to recreate the ‘high’ feeling. Other activities you may have previously enjoyed like socialising or a certain hobby may now feel less enjoyable in comparison. You may, therefore, start withdrawing from those activities as you focus on the activity giving you the most pleasure - taking drugs.
Drug abuse over a long period can cause changes in your brain which can affect your judgment, decision-making abilities, your ability to learn and even your memory. These changes can then contribute to you wanting to take drugs again, even though you know it's bad for your health.
Signs of drug addiction
In many cases of addiction, acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step. It can be hard to understand whether or not you have an addiction, especially if you haven't been using drugs for that long. Below are some signs to look out for that could indicate you have an addiction.
- You feel a desire to use the drug every day or multiple times a day.
- You take more drugs than you want to and for a longer period than you wanted to.
- You keep using the drug even though you can see it’s affecting your work life and/or relationships.
- You find you are spending more and more time alone.
- You’re lying to those around you, stealing or doing dangerous things to get more drugs.
- You feel sick when you try to quit using the drug.
- You spend most of your time thinking about drugs - getting them, using them or recovering from them.
When to get help
If you recognise the signs described above and you’re finding your drug use is causing problems, seeking help early is key. Treatment for drug addiction takes time and support, so finding professional help is a great first step. Visiting your GP is a good starting point. They will be able to discuss your treatment options and may refer you to a local drug service. If you’d rather not speak to your GP, you could reach out to a local drug service directly or reach out to a private therapist.
Treatment for drug addiction
If you have been referred to or have directly contacted your local drug service, in your first appointment you will be asked about your drug use. You will likely be asked about your work, family and housing situation, and may be asked for a urine/saliva sample. You’ll be told what your treatment options are and agree on a plan of action. Staff can give you more information on support groups for yourself and your family. You’ll also likely be given a key worker who will support you during treatment.
Drug addiction treatment will differ depending on your circumstances but tends to include talking therapy, medication, detoxification and self-help.
Whilst therapy alone is unlikely to beat addiction - we need to reflect on our environment and join a support group for example - it can provide a reflective space where we can discover what we need to do in a supportive and non-judgemental therapeutic relationship. This way we can reconnect with both our inner selves as well as the wider world beyond.
- Counsellor Lyn Reed, MA, MBACP(reg), Pro.Adv.Dip.PC.
Therapy can be offered in a group or individual setting and will be focused on teaching you new ways of coping with drug cravings whilst tackling any coexisting conditions or underlying causes. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often recommended for those with an addiction as it helps you understand the relationship between your thoughts, feelings and behaviours better.
If you’re addicted to an opioid drug like heroin, you may be offered methadone - a substitute drug. This can help you continue your treatment without worrying about the effects of withdrawal. Your team will then help you come off methadone slowly.
For those wanting to come off of opioid drugs completely, the detoxification process (detox) in treatment helps you cope with withdrawal symptoms.
Seeking support through support groups can be very helpful during addiction treatment. Talking to other people who understand how you’re feeling and those who can share their tips and experience can help you feel less isolated.
Part of drug addiction is about reducing any harm caused by drug-taking. This may include testing and treatment for conditions like HIV, for example.
Treatment for drug addiction works best when you have support around you, both professional support and personal support. If you're looking for professional support, you can use our search tool to find a counsellor near you.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Whilst there are no laws stipulating a required level of training for counsellors working with drug addiction, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has put together some clinical guidelines outlining recommendations about psychological treatments, treatment with medicines and what kind of services help individuals with drug addiction.
Key recommendations suggest that people in drug treatment should be offered psychosocial or psychological treatments, which may include:
- Behavioural therapy in which the person agrees with their therapist a set of consequences and rewards for using and not using drugs (known as contingency management).
- Couples and/or family therapy.
- Psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Depending on the nature of the drug addiction and the drug in question, detoxification may also be offered. For more information, please see the full NICE guidelines: Drug use disorders in adults.