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Addiction

What is addiction?

An addiction is a health disorder where you are unable to stop doing something that is causing harm to you or others. 

The most common addictions are to alcohol, tobacco, drugs and gambling.

Addiction is often chronic, which means it goes on for a long time. It is also relapsing, meaning that you might go back to the addiction a few times on your path to recovery.

An addiction can take over your life, affecting your health, work, study, relationships and finances.

But addiction can be managed and you should expect to recover, even though it may take some time.

What types of addiction are there?

People can develop an addiction to:

  • alcohol
  • tobacco
  • prescription drugs (for example codeine and other painkillers, sedatives, sleeping tablets)
  • street drugs (for example heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine)
  • solvents (for example sniffing paint-thinners, petrol or glue)
  • activities like gambling, shopping, computer games, exercise or eating.

Signs and symptoms of addiction

At the start, you might start to notice problems with close relationships and your moods.

As addiction gets worse you might:

  • need more to get the same effect
  • have withdrawal symptoms or feel sick if you stop
  • sometimes use more than you mean to
  • prioritise the addiction over other things
  • keep going even though you know it is bad for you or others you care about
  • try to cut down but can’t.

If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, even if you aren't sure if the problem is ‘an addiction’, it’s important to seek help.

Get help early

The sooner you recognise a problem and get help, the easier it will be to recover. Don’t think that you have to hit rock bottom before seeing someone.

Get advice and help 

I was drinking to excess every night. I couldn’t do anything without drinking. My family was freaking out, and even through the alcohol I was kind of freaking out too.

Nick, Sydney

How is addiction treated?

Addiction can be treated with:

  • counselling (online, by telephone or in person)
  • motivational interviewing and cognitive behaviour therapy (types of psychological treatment that encourage you to change your behaviour)
  • medication
  • group therapy (including support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous)
  • family therapy
  • detox programs in hospital or at home
  • rehab in hospital or at home.

No single treatment will work for everyone first time. You can work with your doctor or other health professional to make a treatment plan that suits you.

Have a plan that is realistic, allows for the possibility of relapse and provides ongoing help for you and your family.

What can a psychiatrist do for addiction?

Psychiatrists play a crucial role in treating addiction.

A psychiatrist will recommend a treatment plan that fits with your situation.

They take into account:

  • the way your mind works
  • your physical health and the effect of drugs or alcohol on the body
  • what’s happening in your life – your job, money, housing, family, friends, level of supports or stress
  • your cultural or language background.

A psychiatrist can provide treatment directly. They may also coordinate a range of other services to help you.

All psychiatrists are trained in the assessment and management of addiction.

Some psychiatrists have extra qualifications in addiction psychiatry or addiction medicine.

Find a psychiatrist

I was struggling. I saw a GP and a psychologist but I realised I needed extra help. I ended up going into my GP and saying, right let’s start Googling psychiatrists. I knew I wanted one who specialised in addiction.

Nick, Sydney

Recovery from addiction

Recovery is when you feel like you are back on track in your life, not just when you stop the addictive behaviour.

Most people do recover from addiction, although for some it takes a long time.

Relapse and addiction

Relapse is very common. Consider it a normal part of the recovery journey.

Stress is the most common reason for people to relapse. If you are recovering it’s important to think through ways you might deal with stressful situations.

 

I wasn’t ready to stop drinking but I still went to my fortnightly appointments. I made progress now and then. I’d have a few days without a drink, then I’d relapse. Dealing with life without the booze –it’s so hard. All you’re left with is the baggage, the problems you were trying to leave behind. The guilt, and shame of what you did while drinking. It made me want to drink more.

Nick, Sydney

Common questions about addiction

Isn’t addiction a choice?
How does addiction affect the brain?
Do some people just have ‘addictive personalities’?
What is 'detox'?
What is ‘rehab’?
What else helps?

Remember

  • Addiction is a health condition, not a lifestyle choice or weakness.
  • Get help early. There are many options, from online counselling to inpatient rehab.
  • Expect recovery. The majority of people who have an addiction will recover.
  • Relapse is normal. Treatments work best when you expect to relapse and plan for it.
Last reviewed April 2017 © RANZCP | C1001V1

This is a general guide only, and does not replace individual medical advice. Please speak to your doctor for advice about your situation. The RANZCP is not liable for any consequences arising from relying on this information. Subject matter experts, people with lived experience of mental illness and carers all contributed to this fact sheet.