Working with Addictions

Life presents everybody with challenges, and we all must find ways to cope with stress and difficult emotions. When people use addictive substances or addictive activities as their main coping strategies, they can lose control of these behaviours and find themselves in difficulty. Often, the key to resolving an addiction is to explore the purpose the behaviour serves, and the reasons a person might want to change the behaviour. This usually clarifies how the behaviour has become a problem, and what areas need to be developed in order to cope with challenges without the addictive behaviour.

How Do I Know If I Am Addicted to Something?

  • Are you engaged in activities that seem to control you more than you control them?
  • Do you try to set limits about how much time you will engage in an activity, or how much of something you will consume, and frequently find yourself spending a lot longer doing it, or having more than you had planned?
  • Do you feel angry or resentful when someone suggests that you should stop doing this thing?
  • Is this activity negatively affecting your personal relationships?
  • Is this activity negatively affecting the other obligations in your life?
  • Do you continue with the activity despite obvious harm to your physical or mental wellbeing?
  • Do you feel frightened or concerned about what would happen to your life if, for some reason, you had to give up this activity?

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, then you may be experiencing an addiction.

What Help Can a Therapist Offer to Someone with an Addiction?

If you are struggling with an addiction, a therapist can help you to think about what does and does not work for you about this behaviour, and think about the reasons that you are coping the way that you are. It is important to look at both the positives and the negatives of the behaviour, and think honestly about why you keep going back to this behaviour, even though it is causing you some trouble.

Often, once you have fully examined the advantages and disadvantages of the behaviour, the reasons behind the addiction become clear, and these become the targets for therapy. Common reasons for using addictive behaviour to cope are low mood, anxiety, trauma and loneliness, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. Each individual will have a unique reason and history to their addictive behaviour.

If a person identifies current thought and behaviour patterns that are maintaining the addictive behaviour, then cognitive behaviour therapy may be a sound treatment option. If these patterns originated in childhood or adolescence, then schema focused therapy may be more beneficial. When a client has analysed thought patterns and recognises them as unhelpful, but is struggling to move on, acceptance and commitment therapy may help. EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) is an option for a person whose addiction is associated with strong physical associations. The specific treatment plan should be negotiated between the person seeking help and the therapist, and tailored to the unique circumstances of the person seeking treatment.

Academic References

Arkowitz, H., Henny A. Westra, William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick (2007) Motivational Interviewing in the Treatment of Psychological Problems (Applications of Motivational Interviewing). New York: Guidlford Press.