What is addiction?
Addiction is when someone is dependent on a substance or behaviour. It involves craving in its absence, a loss of control over consumption and the continued use despite it causing harm. This can lead to problems with relationships, work, school, finances or health.
What might we get addicted to?
Ecstasy and amphetamines
Heroin and other opiates
Glues and solvents
What causes addiction?
Addiction is not down to weakness or a lack of willpower. Instead it should be seen as a chronic disease that involves changes in the brain. Billions of nerve cells, or neurons, communicate with each other through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. In the case of addiction, this communication process is disrupted in the brain's reward circuit and addictive behaviours can develop as a consequence.
When a person consumes a substance or engages in certain behaviours, a neurotransmitter, dopamine, is released in large quantities. This activates the brain's reward circuit, which floods its receptors, causing a sensation of euphoria.
To maintain this feeling of euphoria, the person takes the substance again or repeatedly. Eventually the brain changes and adapts, and more of the substance is needed to achieve the same feeling. This is called tolerance or addiction.
What are the symptoms of addiction?
It's not always easy to tell the difference between having a passion for something and being addicted to it. These 4 things can help you understand if you’re experiencing an addiction:
The presence of obsessive thoughts about the substance or activity
The feeling of not being able to stop
Continuing despite the negative consequences on your life
When stopping the substance or behaviour causes a withdrawal syndrome with symptoms such as nausea, tremors, depression or high anxiety.
What are the risks of addiction?
The risks associated with addiction are different and vary depending on the substance or behaviour. They are most often significant and serious. They include:
Physical risks – loss of alertness and reflexes leading to falls and traffic accidents, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, HIV transmission and death
Social risks – social isolation that can lead to marginalisation and violence towards others.
These risks are increased tenfold by the use of multiple substances, which is also known as poly consumption.
What can lead to addiction?
A person may start using a substance or take up a new activity due to social pressures. Other times it can be to relieve physical or psychological pain, for example following a traumatic experience or a mental health problem.
Sometimes, just the simple search for thrills can lead to an addiction. Addiction can also develop as a result of the way the brain functions – this will be different from person to person.
Who is most at risk of developing an addiction?
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to addiction. The area of their brain responsible for impulse control, called the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed as an adolescent, making them more prone to risky behaviour. Substance use can cause lasting damage to developing brains. People who are anxious, introverted or have depression are also at greater risk of addiction.
How does addiction affect teenagers?
Although every addiction that develops is different, there are generally 3 factors that could be the cause:
Stress and pressure
When asked, teenagers say that the main reason they use drugs is due to the pressure and stress of school. Other events, like a break-up with a partner, the death of a close relative, abuse or an illness can cause the teenager to become deeply distressed and resort to substance use as a coping strategy.
The family environment
Some teenagers face greater stressors at home – these include emotional neglect, abuse, divorce, very strict parenting, illness or death of a family member, money problems or other challenges.
A family member with an addiction can also trigger risky behaviours or substance use. Parents who are caught up with personal problems may not realise their teenager needs help, or may not know how to help them cope with life's challenges.
Some people are more likely to develop an addiction due to the way their brain processes information. This can be attributed to genetics. Genetic susceptibility does not have to be present for a teenager to develop an addiction, but it can increase the likelihood.
All 3 factors above do not have to be present for an addiction to develop. If you think your child might be developing an addiction, talk to them about it. You can help your child by being a good listener, teaching them healthy stress management and engaging in their activities.
What treatment is available for addiction?
In many cases, treatment requires the help of a therapist, supplemented by medication and social support.
The first method often used to help addiction is withdrawal. This may involve detoxification under medical supervision to relieve the physical effects of withdrawal. Medical supervision is needed because the effects can be dangerous.
Some people may benefit from medication that restores normal brain function, reduces craving, helps maintain abstinence or treats co-existing mental health problems.
Therapy can help change attitudes and behaviours related to addiction. Common approaches include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, or supportive family or group psychotherapy.
Support groups and self-help organisations, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are an important resource for advice, help and encouragement for people going through withdrawal or who have already stopped, as well as for those around them.
Which treatment should be used?
There’s no single approach to long-term recovery from addiction. Everyone develops an addiction for their own biological, psychological and social reasons. The damage caused by addiction is also specific to each person.
Successful treatment integrates multiple components targeting particular aspects of the disease and its consequences.
In the context of addiction, the most important thing is the relationship of trust with a health professional who can accompany you and guide you towards the treatment that best suits your situation.
How can Livi help?
You can consult a Livi GP online who will be able to discuss your situation with you and advise you on what treatment is appropriate. If the doctor believes it’s necessary they can refer you to specialist care.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP, Livi