Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Sean Tierney
Last updated 19th April 2024 | Next update due 19th April 2027

Addiction is the term used when someone is unable to control certain habits and behaviours, to the point where they are becoming harmful. Some examples of addiction include an addiction to alcohol, gambling addiction and smoking.

Here 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.

What is addiction?

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 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 stemmed from 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. 

In this video lead psychologist Dr Darren Adamson (DCounPsych, CPsychol) discusses addiction and how counselling can help. 

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 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.

What are some common addictions?

Many activities can become addictive, however, certain substances and habits are more commonly seen. Below you can learn about common addictions in more detail.


Drug addiction

close-up of eye

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people on fruit machines

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Sex addiction

couples feet in bed

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Internet addiction

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Getting help for addiction

In some cases, the harm of 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're feeling. If you are the person with an addiction, 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.

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.

It’s when the harmful consequences of addiction outweigh the pain that was supposed to be relieved, that counselling comes in.

- Counsellor Louise Medhurst, MNCPS (Acc.) - 'Counselling for addiction: Help on the road to recovery'

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 addiction. This is important in helping the individual understand the cause and take steps in overcoming and coping with their issues.

Essentially, by interrupting the cycle of 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."

Therapists who can help with addiction

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. 

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.

Learn more about what to do when you're worried about a loved one.

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