Addiction: Causes, Signs & Symptoms

An addiction or substance dependence can cause a far-reaching impact on the lives of those struggling with addiction and that of their loved ones. Fortunately, with the right approach and understanding, it can be overcome. In the following guide, we take a closer look at what an addiction means and how to identify the signs of an addiction. We explore important differences between drug and alcohol dependence and behavioural addictions, including the steps to recovery.

What is addiction?

Addiction is also referred to as a dependence and involves an inability to control the use of a substance (including prescription drugs and alcohol) or engage in an addictive behaviour (Healthline). It is characterized by physical cravings, changes in mood, and increased efforts to satisfy the craving by sacrificing responsibilities or disregarding consequences.

Someone who is addicted to a substance or a behaviour will experience the following symptoms:

  • Poor impulse control
  • An inability to quit the behaviour
  • Deny the ways their behaviour is causing problems in their lives and that of others
  • Poor emotional and mood responses.

An addiction can have far-reaching consequences on daily life including compromised health, financial difficulties, and job losses.

a man struggling with addiction

Addiction vs. abuse

Addiction is an inability to manage how much alcohol you drink or overall drug use. It involves a struggle to reduce or stop substance use. Abuse involves an overindulgence or drinking too frequently in large amounts but with the ability to stop when desired.

Substance abuse has the potential to become an addiction. The consistent use of alcohol or drugs with increased amounts will create a tolerance. A tolerance means greater amounts of the substance must be consumed or used to achieve the same effect. It places individuals in a difficult position and risk of dependence.

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Types of addictions

The most common types of addictions include alcohol and drug dependence (substance dependence). Drug addictions can consist of opioids and other recreational drugs including prescription medication. Other types of addictions that are driven by impulse and preoccupation include:

  • Gambling addiction
  • Sex addiction
  • Technology addiction
  • Food addiction
  • Work addiction.

Addictions such as gambling or sex addiction, are also known as behavioural addictions.

Alcohol Addiction

An alcohol addiction also known as alcoholism, alcohol use disorder, or an alcohol dependence is a disease in which the ability to regulate or stop drinking becomes difficult or impossible to achieve (Healthline). Alcoholism can affect anyone from all walks of life; however, specific predisposing factors such as addictive genes, past traumas, and psychological disorders can place such populations at greater risk of developing an alcohol addiction.

There are significant signs and symptoms to determine whether someone is affected by an alcohol use disorder. Changes in behaviour and emotional instability, hiding or denying alcohol related activities, failing to maintain responsibilities, and reliance on heavy drinking without being able to quit are indications of problematic alcohol use.

Drug Addiction

A drug addiction is also known as a drug dependence, or substance use disorder. It is an inability to control or stop the use of a substance such as a recreational drug or prescription medication. The most common types of drug addiction include reliance on cannabis, cocaine, and heroin.

Dependence on drugs is marked by an individual’s inability to maintain a healthy and normal lifestyle. Substances including heroin, cocaine, and THC in cannabis are responsible for mind altering and intoxicating effects that disrupt concentration, change mood, and create mild hallucinations or delusions. Someone with a drug addiction will not quit their behaviour despite identifying a problem with substance dependence.

Prescription Drug Addiction

While a recreational drug addiction is the most widely known of substance dependences, there are many who suffer from prescription drug addiction. A prescription drug addiction is when you use a medication other than what it was prescribed for (WebMD). When prescribed medication is taken other than for its intended use, it changes the normal function of the brain. With prolonged use, your impulse control, judgement, and ability to make sound decisions are compromised.

The most common types of prescription drug addictions include opiates/opioids which include codeine, tramadol, and fentanyl, medications used for chronic or severe pain. Taking opioids for a long time can influence your central nervous system and can have life threatening consequences.

Benzodiazepines such as diazepam, alprazolam, and clonazepam are relaxants for anxiety and stress, and commonly used in alcohol detox. It can create a tolerance with frequent use over time. Amphetamines and Dextroamphetamines including Ritalin and Adderall are common prescription drug addictions.

Behavioural Addictions

A behavioural addiction can create many struggles including changes in personality and disregard for the consequences of the chosen behaviour. Behavioural addictions do not involve a substance dependence. It is characterized by an inability to control or stop a specific behaviour or activity. The “reward” or the “feeling” obtained from the behaviour intensifies over time, which reinforces the connection between the action and perceived pleasure. Gambling, food addictions, and porn addictions are examples of activities that create a negative impact on health, finances, relationships, and employment.

Behavioural addictions are listed alongside substance use disorders in the DSM-5 or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders. The chapter describes 8 prominent addictions involving gambling addiction, sex addiction, shopping addiction, gaming addiction, and food addictions (Oxford Medicine Online).

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    How does addiction develop?

    The process of an addiction is about a lack of self control. Despite the risks and the consequences, whether financial, legal, relationship, or health wise, individuals continue to engage in the activity. The more one seeks and engages in the behaviour, and the more rewarding or pleasurable it feels, the more intense the drive and includes changes in the “pleasure effects” of the brain (

    While researchers were primarily concerned with the impact of drugs and alcohol on the brain and the process of addiction, behavioural activities including gambling and sex addiction are under investigation for its neurological influences. While many people do not seek an addiction, its grip on healthy function can quickly take control. A closer look at the ways an addiction develops can provide insight into its underlying causes and the road to recovery.


    Trauma can involve psychological trauma in which there is a perceived threat to one’s mental or physical well-being. It can involve an event of abuse, natural disaster, accident, or witnessing of a disruptive event.

    According to Nova Recovery Center, there is a strong correlation between trauma and addiction. Research has shown that domestic violence, sexual abuse, and crime are primarily connected to the development of an addiction. As trauma increases stress and reduces one’s ability to positively cope (particularly if therapy has not been sought), it increases the risk of addictive tendencies as a coping mechanism. Trauma also increases the incidence of psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. Individuals who have suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at great risk of relying on substance or forming addictions to alleviate the flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia that is plaguing their well-being.

    Family history & genetics

    According to NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), there is a 50% risk of a substance dependence having a hereditary basis. Family studies based on fraternal twins and siblings indicate a biological basis for addictive behaviours such as alcohol and drug addiction. Through a scientific process known as genome sequencing, scientists are able to identify the connection between a disorder and the known gene (NIDA).

    When genetic risk factors are combined with lifestyle or environmental triggers there is a higher vulnerability to developing an addiction or substance use disorder. Research also suggests that genetic factors play an important role in the way one interacts with their environment, which places such individuals at a higher risk of addictions.

    Addiction facts & statistics

    • The Office for National Statistics (ONS) show an average 7551 deaths related to alcohol in 2018
    • In 2014, 65% of male deaths in the UK were attributed to alcohol
    • In 2017, there was a 23% rise in cocaine use in the UK
    • In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a 38% rise in drinking habits among adults in the UK during the lockdown period in February 2020.

    Owing to the increases in drug and alcohol abuse, the UK has also seen an increase in emergency hospital admissions associated with drug and alcohol addiction and overdoses.

    group therapy for addiction

    Is addiction treatable?

    Addiction can be managed and overcome with participation in a recovery and rehabilitation programme. Addiction treatment includes professional support and therapy. Treatment starts with a detox (unless you are being treated for behavioural addictions such as gambling) and entry into a therapy based programme. To pursue the journey to sobriety, requires participation in the relevant support programme.

    Residential Addiction Treatment

    A residential addiction treatment centre is designed to introduce clients to a welcoming, caring, and home-like environment with access to round the clock treatment. Individuals will first be required to undergo a detox in which the presence of drugs or alcohol is cleared from the body. To support withdrawal symptoms and protect against relapse, a residential addiction treatment encourages participation in individual therapy, group therapy, and structured activities from morning to evening.

    Therapies are delivered by experienced, certified, and professional therapists. Each approach is tailored to the nature of the substance dependence. Along with in-house therapy, clients are introduced to an aftercare programme in which essential skills are introduced and support provided outside of the residential addiction treatment. Aftercare is an essential part of overcoming addiction because it helps reduce the occurrence of a relapse. Aftercare programmes are offered outside of residential rehabilitation. It provides a supportive resource for those who may feel vulnerable or continue to learn how to cope with life’s challenges and stressful events.

    Outpatient Programmes

    Outpatient programmes are designed to provide clients the flexibility of attending classes and support sessions while attending work and maintaining daily activities. Examples of an outpatient programme offering structured therapy is a day programme. Here, individuals will attend a daily workshop of a few hours where different forms of therapy and activities are introduced. Alternative services include support groups such as AA or Alcoholics Anonymous. AA meetings are held once a week and free from both the addict and their family member to attend.

    It is important that individuals who are seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addiction are advised on a detox programme prior to pursuing a rehabilitation service. A detox ensures that any intoxicating or mind-altering effects induced by the substance in the body are removed. It also helps those managing an addiction, start their sober journey free of any drugs or alcohol. Detox can also be managed in home but under the supervision and medical guidance of a GP. The purpose is to mitigate the risks and encourage the well-being of persons who are substance dependent.


    man talking to a therapist

    When to seek help for addiction

    When you recognise that a substance dependence or addictive behaviour is interfering with your health, your finances, your relationships, and your overall outlook on life, it is time to seek help. A substance addiction or impulsive, addictive behaviours will gradually take over your life. Before you know it, you find yourself in the grip of an addiction that you cannot control or stop on your own.

    Fortunately, an addiction does not mean the end of the road. Even if you have sought treatment and experienced a relapse, there is still opportunity to work towards taking your life and your health back. The sooner you feel there is a problem, the easier it will be to find the help that you need.

    Frequently Asked Questions
    You may have a lot of questions about addiction. If you are unable to find the answer below please give us a call and speak to one of our addiction specialists today.
    Is addiction and dependency the same?
    An addiction and dependency are both defined as an inability to regulate or quit the use of a substance or the pursuit of a specific behaviour. Addictions are primarily used to describe behaviours such as gambling, sex or food addictions. A dependency commonly describes a reliance on a specific substance such as drugs or alcohol.
    Is addiction a disease?
    Addiction is a disease; however, there are some who argue that there is little evidence to support this. According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), drug, alcohol, and other addictive behaviours such as sex and gambling, are listed as psychological disorders requiring professional psychological support and intervention.
    What can I do to reduce my chances of developing addiction?
    An addiction is a disorder that develops over time. The best course of action is to remain aware of risk factors including a family history of addiction and past traumas. Seeking therapy to learn how to cope and to manage pressing psychological disorders can assist in reducing the chances of developing an addiction.
    Someone I love is struggling with addiction, what should I do?
    Provide him or her with support, care, and understanding. Adopt a non-judgmental approach and consult with a recovery facility or professional to advise on the steps to helping a loved one with an addiction.
    Can I beat addiction without professional help?
    To recover from an alcohol or drug addiction requires a detox which should always be overseen by a medical professional. Remember, detox alone will not address the underlying psychological causes of an addiction. For behavioral addictions such as gambling, beating such disorders can be incredibly difficult without professional help; however, seeking the support of friends and family, identifying your addiction, and learning of your options for treatment can help you on your road to recovery.

    Jason Sheirs
    Author / Jason Shiers / Dip. Psych MBACP
    Jason Shiers is a Certified Transformative Coach & Certified Psychotherapist who is a specialist in addiction, trauma and eating disorders. He has been working in the field of addiction for 25 years now.