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Addiction

What is addiction?

Addiction is when you feel like you can’t stop doing something, to the point of it being harmful. Maybe at first doing that thing felt good, and now you want to keep doing it to chase that feeling. Or perhaps you’re chasing a good feeling because you’re going through something tough. But doing this thing over and over again can harm you and make it a difficult habit to break.

When it comes to things like drugs, alcohol, smoking or vaping, the more you use them, the more your body gets used to having these substances in your system. If you’re taking them regularly, you might need more of it to feel the same effects. And if you suddenly stop taking them, you can get withdrawal symptoms that can make you feel quite unwell.

People can also get behavioural or psychological addictions, like gambling, gaming or watching porn. With this type of addiction, you might not get physical withdrawal symptoms, but you could feel strong cravings to do something or spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Whatever addiction you’re dealing with, it’s not your fault. It can happen to anybody, no matter your age, gender, race, culture, faith or anything else. It’s nothing to be ashamed about.

The good news is, addiction is treatable and there are things you can do to help yourself recover. We’re here to help you on that journey.

What are the signs of addiction?

Addiction builds up over time, so it can be tough to recognise that you’re struggling with it. But here are some signs to look out for:

  • You feel like you can’t stop, even when you want to.
  • You stop doing other things in your life that you used to care about, like hobbies, seeing friends and family, studying.
  • You feel guilty or ashamed about what you’re doing and hide it from others.
  • You spend all your money on the thing you’re addicted to.
  • You get withdrawal symptoms when you stop (like feeling sick which can happen with addiction to alcohol or drugs).
  • You feel like you need to do the thing that you’re struggling with, rather than wanting to do it.
  • You’re in denial about your addiction, e.g. refusing to get help; convincing yourself and others that you can stop “any time”; or telling yourself it’s okay because other people do it too.

It’s okay if you’re not sure if you’re experiencing addiction or not. Whatever’s going on for you, if it’s getting you down, you deserve support.

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What can you become addicted to?

Addictions aren't just about drugs and alcohol. People can get addicted to all sorts of things. Below are some common examples, but remember that whatever you’re struggling with, if you feel like it’s a problem, it’s valid and you deserve support. These are just a few examples and everyone’s experience is different. It’s also possible to be affected by more than one of these types of addiction. If you think you’re struggling with addiction, find out how to get help below or contact a helpline.

It might be time to think about your relationship with drugs or alcohol if:

  • Life doesn’t seem enjoyable unless you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • You’re spending a lot of time trying to get hold of, using or recovering from drugs or alcohol.
  • Drinking alcohol or using drugs is getting in the way of your work, school or relationships.
  • You keep using drugs or drinking alcohol even though it’s causing problems with your health.
  • You’ve noticed that you need more drugs or alcohol than before to feel the effects.
  • You feel you need to cut down on your drinking or drug use.
  • You sometimes can’t remember what you did while drinking or on drugs, or you “black out” from drink or drug use.
  • You get withdrawal symptoms when you’re not taking drugs or drinking alcohol, like anxiety or irritability, nausea and vomiting, sweating and chills, pain and discomfort in the body, hand tremors or shakes, or diarrhoea.

It might be time to think about your relationship with smoking/vaping if:

  • You can’t go long periods without thinking about and craving a cigarette or vape.
  • You get withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop, like strong cravings, irritability, anxiety, trouble concentrating, or headaches.
  • You keep smoking/vaping even though you have a health problem.
  • You use smoking as a way to take your mind off difficult thoughts or feelings.

When you hear the word “gambling”, you might think of casinos or betting on sports. But this could also be trading cryptocurrencies or other investments.

It might be time to think about your relationship with gambling if:

  • You’re always thinking about gambling or how to get more money to gamble with.
  • You feel the need to gamble with more and more money each time.
  • You try to get back lost money by gambling more.
  • You lie about how much you’re gambling, or about how much money you’ve lost.
  • Your gambling is affecting your job, relationships or home life.

It might be time to think about your relationship with exercise if:

  • You feel the need to exercise even if you aren’t enjoying it anymore, e.g. as a way of coping with your day-to-day life.
  • You feel like you’re not doing enough exercise or feel guilty when you can’t exercise.
  • You feel anxious, restless or low when you’re not exercising.
  • You miss important social events because you ‘have to exercise’.
  • You experience a loss of appetite, sleeplessness or headaches when you don’t exercise.
  • You keep exercising even though you know it’s causing mental and/or physical health problems.

It might be time to think about your relationship with shopping if:

  • You buy things you don’t need so you can feel a buzz.
  • You have feelings of guilt, shame or despair after buying something.

It might be time to think about your relationship with video games if:

  • You’re always thinking about gaming or wanting to play the game.
  • You get tiredness, headaches or hand pain from too much screen time or use of controllers.
  • You’ve stopped taking good care of your hygiene e.g. washing.
  • You don’t meet up with your friends as much as you used to because you’re gaming instead.
  • You have trouble sleeping because of a game.

It might be time to think about your relationship with the internet or social media if:

  • You’re spending more time online than with family and friends.
  • Your internet or social media use is impacting your work at school or your job.
  • Your use of the internet and social media is affecting your health and wellbeing, like not getting enough sleep or exercise, or making you feel low.
  • You use the internet or social media as a way of escaping your own problems or feelings.

It might be time to think about your relationship with watching porn if:

  • You feel a strong urge to watch porn regularly.
  • You don’t feel in control of your porn usage.
  • You look for more and more exciting, risky or anxiety-provoking porn to watch.
  • You have trouble getting an erection with real people (if you have a penis) and find yourself fantasising about porn you’ve seen to get an erection.

It might be time to think about your relationship with food and eating if:

  • You regularly eat a lot of food very quickly.
  • You eat a lot even when you’re not hungry.
  • You eat alone or secretly to try and hide how much you’re eating.

You feel guilty, ashamed or disgusted after eating lots of food.

Get more advice on eating problems

It might be time to think about your relationship with work if:

  • You’re constantly thinking about work, even when you’re not working.
  • You’re working more and more hours as time goes on, even when you don’t need to.
  • You feel stressed or irritable when you’re unable to work, like when you’re on holiday.
  • Your work is interfering with your social life.

Addiction and other conditions

People of all ages, races, genders and backgrounds can struggle with addiction. It can affect anyone. We don’t know for sure why some people struggle with addiction more than others.

Often, addiction starts as a way to cope with tough emotions. Sometimes the addiction can start as a way of coping with an underlying mental health condition, like anxiety or depression. Or for neurodivergent people – like those with autism or ADHD – it could be a way of ‘masking’ or coping with sensory challenges or other symptoms.

If you're worried about developing an addiction, think about what the object of your addiction does for you. Addiction isn’t a choice, but understanding what drew you to it could help you change your behaviour and get the support you need.

For advice on managing a mental health condition alongside your addiction, take a look at our guides.

 

Getting help for addiction

If you’re struggling with addiction, speak to someone you trust. This could be a friend, a family member, a teacher, a faith leader or anyone else in your community. This can feel really scary and you might worry about being judged. But people that care about you will want to help you, even if they need a bit of time at first to understand what you’re going through.

If you don’t want to talk to someone you know, that’s okay. There are lots of free and confidential helplines you can use.

Get more advice in our guide to reaching out for help

If you think you need professional help, speak to your GP. They can help you find the support that’s right for you. It’s normal to feel nervous to talk about addiction with your doctor, but remember they’re there to help, not to judge you. It’s a key part of a GP’s job to help patients with their mental health, so they’ve almost definitely supported young people with addiction before.

Get more advice on speaking to your GP

There are lots of organisations out there that can help you get support for specific addictions.

Find more organisations that can help

If you’re over 18, you can refer yourself for NHS drug or alcohol addiction support in your local area, as well as stopping smoking support.

Find alcohol addiction support in your area

Find drug addiction support in your area

Find your local Stop Smoking service

Can you get in trouble for telling someone that you’re addicted to illegal drugs?

When you talk to a doctor or healthcare professional, what you say is confidential. They can’t share what you say with anyone else unless you agree otherwise. There are two exceptions to this:

  1. If they feel that you’re in danger of harming yourself or others, they might tell someone to help keep you safe. But they will always try to let you know first.
  2. If you’re under 16 and a doctor or healthcare worker thinks you’re being abused or that you’re in danger, they have to report this by law.

If you tell them you’ve taken illegal drugs, or that you’ve smoked, vaped or drunk alcohol underage, they won’t report you to the police. It’s safe and important to tell your doctor – they want to help.

Treatment for addiction

There are a few different treatment options for addiction.

Talking therapy

Lots of people find talking therapy helpful when recovering from addiction. A common type is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). With CBT, a therapist can help you figure out what triggers your addiction and understand how your thoughts and feelings affect your behaviour.

Find out more about counselling and therapy

Self-help groups

A lot of people find self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous helpful. These are spaces where people dealing with addiction get together to talk about what they’re going through and support each other. They’re usually in person and it’s free to attend, but they do often have a collection to cover their running costs.

Medication

If you have a chemical addiction, like to drugs or alcohol, there are medications you can take to help you stop safely. You’ll need a prescription for these, so speak to your doctor if you think this is a good option.

Find out more about medication

Ways to help yourself if you're struggling with addiction

If you’re struggling with addiction, it’s important to speak to someone you trust so you get the support you need. But there are also things you can do to help yourself.

  • Remove temptation

    This may sound obvious, but it can really help to avoid being around the focus of your addiction, at least to begin with. If you’re trying to stop gaming, give your console to someone else to look after. If you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs, take a break from hanging out with the people you usually do this with.

  • Set recovery goals

    Think about how you want your life to change after addiction and set yourself some targets. This can really help keep you on track when you’re finding things tough. This handy goal-setting tool from the drugs and alcohol charity With You might help.

  • Create a self-soothe box

    A self-soothe box is a box full of items that help ground you. It can be helpful to have with you for when things feel too much. Find out how to make a self-soothe box.

Relapse

Recovering from addiction is tough. There’s no quick fix and making changes can take a long time. It’s common to make progress and then slip back into old behaviours again. This is called relapsing.

If this happens, remember that you’re still making incredible progress. It’s all part of your journey to recovery.

After a relapse, you might get feelings of shame or regret that make you want to give in to your addiction again. It’s normal to feel like this and it can make recovery hard. Instead of giving up on all your hard work, find someone who can help you keep going. If you don’t feel you can talk to someone you know, contact a helpline.

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Supporting someone with addiction

Helping someone struggling with addiction is tough. It can be hard to know what to say or do to help, especially if the person doesn’t think they have an addiction. Here are some tips to make it a little bit easier.

Helping someone struggling with addiction is tough. It can be hard to know what to say or do to help, especially if the person doesn’t think they have an addiction. Here are some tips to make it a little bit easier.

If someone tells you they think they have an addiction, listen to them. Even if what they say they’re addicted to surprises you, it’s important to take it seriously. It might not seem like a problem to you, but how they feel about it is what matters most. Addiction often comes with a lot of shame, so if someone opens up, try to reassure them that you care and you want to help.

Be careful not to unintentionally support their addictive behaviour. This could be things like ignoring their behaviour, giving them money to use on their addiction, making excuses for their behaviour, or taking on their responsibilities.

If your friend is trying to tackle an addiction, suggest doing activities together that don’t involve their addiction. It could help take their mind off things.

It’s great if they can speak to you about how they’re feeling, but it’s important they get professional help as well. Encourage them to see their doctor or contact a helpline.

Addiction can make people act in ways that seem out of character. If they get angry more quickly than usual, or become more distant, try not to take it personally. Remember they’re struggling with an illness. Their behaviour is not about you – you’ve done nothing wrong.

Tips for having a conversation about addiction

  • Pick the right moment

    Find a time when both of you are free and won’t be interrupted. If they’re struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, make sure they’re sober when you talk.

  • Let them know you care

    Begin by reminding them how much they mean to you. Make it clear that your conversation comes from a place of care and worry.

  • Speak from your perspective

    Share how their behaviour makes you feel without passing judgment. Use "I" statements like "I feel concerned about your drinking" instead of "You're drinking too much." This can help them understand your perspective without feeling attacked.

  • Be prepared for a negative reaction

    It's common for someone struggling with addiction to react defensively or even aggressively. Try not to take this personally – it’s most likely not about you. But you do need to keep yourself safe and walk away if you need to.

  • Ask for help if you need it

    If this is more than you can handle right now, that’s okay. Help is available if you need it. Speak to an adult you trust or contact a helpline. Seeking support is not a betrayal of their trust. They might be angry at you at first, but eventually they’ll see that you’re doing it to help.

  • Look after yourself

    This is a tough conversation to have, so be sure to look after yourself. Plan something nice for afterwards that can help you relax.

A Black teenage boy wearing a hearing aid speaking to a white non-binary teenager. They are walking on the street outside a shop. Both people are smiling.

Advice on supporting a friend

Get more advice on supporting someone with their mental health in our guide to supporting a friend.

Get help and advice

Get help now

If you’re struggling with addiction, these organisations and helplines are here to help.

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