Inexcess: In search of recovery

Help and support for people and families
dealing with drug and alcohol problems

Addiction Info

Find out more about addiction and recovery


What is Addiction?

AddictionAddiction refers to the heavy use and reliance upon a substance to achieve a certain effect influencing a person’s mood, behaviour and actions.

There is a strong compulsion to both seek and consume their substance of choice, and therefore the individual is likely to dedicate a significant amount of their time to fulfilling their compulsive urges.

According to research, addiction occurs when an individual becomes both physically and psychologically dependent upon a substance

Physical dependency: long term use of substance can alter the body’s chemistry meaning that if they do not repeatedly use the substance they will suffer painful withdrawal symptoms. Continued use is then needed to prevent withdrawal and cravings.

Psychological dependency: Is a compulsion to use drugs on a regular basis. Often people use the substance as a coping mechanism and to alter their mood. Withdrawal from the drug does not result in any physical symptoms; however they may experience more psychological effects such as anxiety and depression.

Addiction may also affect a person socially as many people distance themselves from friends and family as their addiction take over. However, it is important to remember that an addiction is not a life sentence. There is help out therefore people who want to get better and chose a different path in their lives.

How to tell if someone is addicted?

There are numerous tests that indicate whether or not an individual is addicted to a substance. One of the most reliable comes from the European Diagnostic Manual which states that in order to be defined as an addiction, an individual will display THREE or more of the following signs of dependency. Here alcohol is used as an example:

  • A strong desire or compulsion to drink
  • An increasing tolerance to alcohol, i.e. needing more and more to achieve the same effect
  • A waning interest in other pleasures or activities
  • Difficulty in controlling the amount consumed, the promise ‘I’ll only have one’ becomes impossible to keep
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms after drinking stops, with a need to start drinking again to relieve this
  • Continuing the habit, despite the harmful effects

Abuse and addiction also affect mood, as drugs are abused for the temporary good feeling they provide. These feelings can vary depending on the drug used. Some mental and emotional signs include:

  • Cycles of being unusually talkative, ‘up’ and cheerful, with seemingly boundless energy
  • Increased irritability, agitation and anger when ‘down’
  • Unusual calmness, unresponsiveness or looking ‘spaced out’
  • Mental signs such as apathy, paranoia, delusions psychosis
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Lowered threshold for violence

From recreational use to abuse

Reliance upon a substance nearly always begins as a pleasure then becomes a habit. However, the continued consumption of alcohol and/or drugs is used as a coping mechanism and a means of controlling an individual’s personal life and external surroundings.

Over a period of time the individual loses sight or control over their behaviour, resulting in irrational thought processes and a preoccupation with obtaining their next hit.

Many people fail to recognise or admit that they have a problem and that they require help in overcoming it. Intervention and concern from friends and family is not welcomed and as a result the user will distance themselves from anyone attempting to come between them and their addiction. This behaviour becomes worse over time and soon an individual will arrange their life entirely around their addiction.

The use of a substance to alter their mental state becomes a routine and part of everyday life. Over time a tolerance to the substance begins to grow and the person requires more of the drug to experience the desired effect. If a user fails to take the substance on a regular basis they will begin to experience cravings or withdrawal symptoms which can include nausea, vomiting, muscles cramps and headaches. These withdrawal symptoms are often similar to experiencing a strong flu.

Why do people become addicted?

There is not a single answer to this question. The reasons behind an individual’s battle with their addiction are unique and personal to them. Researchers have found there are a number of recurring reasons that can trigger an addiction

Social pressures: Western society has a general acceptance of alcohol. It is frequently consumed in social situation and is widely available at a relatively low cost. Similarly, there are pressures on young people to use various drugs by their friends.

Genetics: Some experts believe that people are more likely to become addicted to a substance if one or both of their parents were. It is suggested that people can genetically inherit a tendency to become dependent on alcohol or drugs, rather than it being due to their environment.

Childhood experience: There is evidence to suggest that dependency can be caused by a trauma during a person’s childhood. This can be due to the loss of a loved one or someone close to them. It may be due to a chance of position in their household due to the addition of a sibling or even a change in the family home. There are numerous studies that support the notion that a large proportion of people dealing with an addiction have been abused during their childhoods. This can include neglect, physical and sexual abuse

In short, unresolved childhood grief can negatively affect a person’s perspective of the world, making them more vulnerable. It means that they may not have developed the essential problem solving strategies they need during adulthood. This also includes knowing which boundaries should and shouldn’t be crossed and for many, the regular use of a substance is the only way they know how to cope.

Addiction and dependency - what is the difference?

The words addiction and dependency are used interchangeably within the world of addiction and recovery; however there is an important difference in their meaning.

Addiction is said to refer to mood altering substances such as drugs or alcohol, whereas dependency is concerned with the emotional or psychological reliance upon a substance.

What are the effects of addiction on physical health?

The misuse of a substance over any period of time can have a damaging effect on a person’s physical health. Alcohol can severely damage the function of the liver and many drugs can damage the arteries surround the heart, leading to abnormal heart rhythms.

Unlike alcohol, many drugs are illegal, as such; the way in which they are produced, handled and transported to the end user can lead to health problems. Why? Firstly there is no quality control, so the impurities from what it is mixed with can lead to long term permanent damage to the internal organs of the body.

Purity can also increase the possibility of overdosing. This is when a person’s metabolism is unable to detoxify the drug and will experience uncomfortable side effects or even death. In the case of alcohol this over consumption is known as alcohol poisoning and can cause mental confusion, irregular breathing, hypothermia, vomiting and seizures.

The very nature of addiction means that an individual needs more of the substance to satisfy a craving. Over time a person’s level of tolerance grows and so larger quantities of the substance are needed to achieve their high.

If a person does not satisfy this craving they will soon develop withdrawal symptoms which are likened to a severe bout of flu, symptoms may include insomnia, tremors, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, seizures, anxiety and agitation.

Can addiction lead to any psychological problems?

The regular use of a substance can affect a person’s mentality and thought process. They may believe that their substance of choice is a vital part of their life, that their problems can be solved by consumption and that they need it to operate and feel good.

However, the misuse of a substance can give rise to withdrawal symptoms and mask a person’s emotions which may include shame, pain, fear and grief. The severity of a person’s addiction may in turn lead to more shame and an increase in the amount of a substance taken to disguise such emotion, ultimately leading people deeper into the depths of addiction.

A person may learn to deal with their issue with another drink or dose of drugs. The practices that underlie dependency will replace those of normal life and their routine becomes consistent and familiar. Often a person is unable to recognise this and will continue to use a substance to get through everyday life. Dependency is based on emotion, not reason.

Will addiction lead to social problems?

Many users face problems battling their addiction often play down their behaviour in front of their friends and family opting to reassure anyone with a concern that they are well, both physically and mentally. Often this concern is misunderstood as interference and because of this, many people chose to distance themselves from those they believe are attempting to come between and their substance.

Additionally, many people with a dependency continue to associate and socialise with people who are also abusing a substance and so, for example, many alcoholics will meet regularly with their drinking companions – keeping their friends and family at arm’s length.

Addiction can also affect an individual’s work which includes their ability to hold down a job and remain attractive to employers.

Getting help

If a person decides that they no longer want to be dependent upon a substance, there are a number of options available to them. It is important to note that both the causes and treatment of all addiction are fundamentally the same, whether this is alcohol, prescribed or illegal drugs.


In order to make this life changing decision an individual often needs to reach their emotion rock bottom whereby their chosen substance fails to satisfy them; alcohol is no longer getting the person drunk and drugs are not able to alter their mental state. In addition to this, a person may be facing a crisis which leads to a sudden break in their regular behaviour. This may be the death of a loved one; the possibility of financial ruin, redundancy or eviction from their home.

In short, a sudden change in a person’s external environment is enough to provoke a huge shift in their attitude towards their chosen substance and ultimately a change in their behaviour.

Some people decide to cut down, whereby they consume a reduced amount of the substance in the hope that one day they will be able to abstain from it altogether. Others decide to end consumption of a substance all together without any help or support. This is known as going cold turkey.

Withdrawal and relapse

Frequently a person will relapse after they experience withdrawal symptoms, which can occur in the hours and days following cutting down or going cold turkey.

Physical symptoms include nausea, aching or trembling of the muscles, fever and diarrhoea.

Psychologically withdrawal can make a person feel anxious, depressed, angry or frustrated and often they find it difficult to concentrate or sleep. Essentially it is easier to relieve the cravings and ease the withdrawal symptoms by turning back to the substance, which explains why so many people relapse.

If a person is unable to beat their addiction on their own, there are many professional bodies and programmes that can offer information, advice and assistance in helping someone through their personal journey in becoming sober or abstinent.

Self-help programmes

There are several self help programmes that can help people achieve their goal of sobriety or abstinence, however it is important to note that the majority focus on the same concept – talking.

One such example is the 12-step programme as used by Alcoholics Anonymous. The programme encourages people to share their personal story as well as listen and learn about other.

The main benefit of the programme comes from meeting others who have shared experiences of beating addiction, giving people the opportunity to see that there is hope. Attending meetings and socializing also fills the void that their addiction once filled and gives people a sense of belonging to a group, without the core of the substance.

There is no charge for the 12-step programme and participants often find that they form lasting relationships as a result, which can help them remain abstinent.

It is important to note that some recovery organisations charge a fee for the information, advice and support offered. Remember that most self help organisations have their own internet website hosting an abundance of free information and advice surrounding the topic of recovery, enabling people to select the programme that best suits their personal needs.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a method of changing the way a person thinks (cognitive) and what they do (behaviour). The treatment starts by getting a person to understand their addiction and taking responsibility for it.

Before the recovery process begins, participants needs to recognise the damage they are inflicting upon themselves and that there is a solution. The programme of treatment encourages participants to discuss their personal objective and goals, which may include:

  • Where they want to get to in life
  • How a person sees their life in the future
  • What obstacles they face
  • Strategies for dealing with these obstacles
  • Situations where abstinence may be difficult
  • Contingency plans for dealing with such an occasion

This strategy is about planning the treatment process, identifying the appropriate treatment agencies along with family and friends who will support this huge change.

The road to recovery means that there will be a transformation in a person’s lifestyle as they are used to being consumed in the daily duties of obtaining their substance and dealing with the after effects. The main challenge a person may face is not stopping the addiction, but maintaining the change in lifestyle; this is where the support offered from friends and family is invaluable.

In order to maintain a new lifestyle a person may wish to change to ‘healthier habits’ such as exercise, a balanced diet, meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques etc, which may help them to experience more positive thoughts and boots their self-esteem.

Medical Intervention

Physiologically a person with a dependence upon a substance may wish to replace their chosen substance for a prescribed substitute under the supervision of their GP or doctor. This option is known as recovery on a ‘drug for drug basis’, such as Methadone for Heroin users.

In addition to this, it is essential that a person receives adequate professional support, which is offered through both residential and outpatient service. Here a person will spend time in one-to-one counselling session and/or therapeutic groups where they will discover their feeling and learn how to deal with new found emotions without turning to their habit for support. Some counsellors are relapse prevention specialists and use techniques such as ‘psychodynamic psychotherapy’ and experimental group therapy to help keep people free of their dependency.

Whilst receiving professional help, a person may be diagnosed with a separate mental health disorder such as depression. This is known as ’dual diagnoses’. Often the symptoms of their disorder disappear with treatment for their dependency; however there are occasions where their disorder becomes more apparent with treatment as the dependency masking the symptoms disappears.

There are also designated social care organisations that address all aspects of treatment and recovery including physical and personal problems in addition to helping with housing, employment and education.

What can family and friends do?

Unquestionably, recovery is a difficult time for some with a dependency. However, it is important to remember that it is also a trying time for the friends and family who surround and support that person. They too have experience the ups and downs of their loved ones journey through an addiction; having their hopes raised at any sign of improvement, only to be dashed when they relapse. Some family members may be ashamed of their loved ones dependency, how it is important to recognise that the negative attitudes of friends and family members can have a detrimental effect on a person’s road to recovery. It is said that a positive attitude and encouragement from family members is the most powerful variable in influencing the success of recovery treatment.

If you are concerned that some close to you is increasing their use of a substance and becoming increasingly dependent on it, then it is best to let them know that you have noticed a change in their behaviour, mood, physical health and consumption of drink or drugs. It is important that a message of concern is communicated positively. Using negative or accusing tones and placing blame on the user will not help them to come to terms with the problems they face and could even fuel their addiction further.

Finding help

The Inexcess Support Directory lists more than 1600 service providers throughout the UK and is divided by region to help support and advise people how to find help in their own area. Click here to visit the Support Directory.