Recognising addiction and regaining control

12 April 2022

We all have things we enjoy doing to relax or feel better. But some habits can turn into unhealthy addictions, taking over our lives. Here, we look at how to recognise if you or a loved one have an addiction, and how to get support.

Addictions often start out as enjoyable habits – having a few drinks with friends, the odd bet at the races, or taking drugs in social settings. These habits may give you a physical or mental high, or even financial reward.

But sometimes, you love them so much that you get a powerful urge to do them again and again. Each time, you want to get that ‘buzz’ back, even though you know the habit’s bad for you.

When your habit is all you can think about, it’s probably turned into an addiction. If you’re addicted, you may get unpleasant withdrawal symptoms (physical or emotional) if you stop the habit. So you carry on doing it to satisfy your cravings. Often an addiction gets out of control because you need more and more of it to achieve your next ‘high’.

If you have an addiction, you may ignore other activities or daily responsibilities. This can affect your physical and mental health, relationships, and finances. So it’s important to seek help for your addiction and get the support you need.

Common addictions

When most people think of an addiction, harmful substances such as alcohol, drugs or smoking usually come to mind. But you can be addicted to anything that gives you a buzz or makes you feel good.

Other addictions can include:

  • gambling
  • prescription medicines
  • shopping
  • sex
  • the internet
  • social media
  • gaming
  • online pornography
  • foods (potentially leading to eating disorders)
  • exercise
  • work

The impact of the pandemic

Many people use addictions to help them cope at times of stress. So it’s not surprising that the pressures of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may have led to an addiction, or made an existing one worse. This may have been due to increased anxiety or working under pressure, social isolation, a lack of usual distractions, or boredom.

Research published in February 2021 found that more than one in six UK adults – especially young adults – drank more alcohol during lockdown. Another research study, published in August 2021, found that the first lockdown led more people aged between 18 and 34 to smoke heavily. Video gaming and online gambling have increased during the pandemic too.

Recognising the signs

Some people hide their addictions well, even from close family, friends and work colleagues. But you may be able to spot some common warning signs and symptoms. These include:

  • mood swings
  • being tired or irritable
  • anxiety, depression or other mental health problems
  • being secretive or dishonest
  • losing interest in activities, hobbies or events that used to be important to them
  • trying – but failing – to avoid whatever they’re addicted to
  • not look after their appearance or personal hygiene
  • trouble sleeping, or sleeping more than usual
  • spending more time alone and not socialising

If they’re addicted to alcohol, smoking or drugs, they may get withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • shakiness
  • restlessness
  • feeling sick
  • a racing heart

An addiction can affect their work, causing:

  • unexplained or regular absences
  • poor performance or productivity
  • more accidents or near-misses

Talking about it

If you think someone has an addiction, it’s important to broach the subject carefully. Some signs and symptoms could be caused by other things, such as stress or illness. Seeking help for an addiction is a difficult step to take, especially for the first time. And it’s natural for someone to worry that they’ll be judged. When discussing their addiction:

  • choose a safe and comfortable place at a quiet time
  • be supportive and open
  • avoid criticising them or their actions
  • be honest with them
  • explain how their addiction affects you or others close to them

You can help them by:

  • listening if they want to talk
  • reassuring them that it’s okay to seek help
  • helping them decide where to go for support
  • encouraging them to go to regular support meetings
  • giving them written information, or website links, about their addiction and how to cut down or stop completely

Hear from our experts

Fatmata Kamara, Specialist Nurse Adviser for Mental Health at Bupa

“Addiction is more common than many people realise. This is because a lot of people keep their addictions hidden due to shame or embarrassment. Admitting you have an addiction is probably the hardest step in getting help.

“Addiction can be devastating to both individuals and their families. If you or someone you know has an addiction, please know there is help available. There are lots of organisations that can offer support to help you recover.”

Getting the right support

If you have an addiction, or think you know someone who does, there are lots of places to go to for support and advice. Speak to a GP, occupational health services or contact an organisation that specialises in helping people with addictions.

Local self-help groups and community networks can help too. There are also support groups for anyone who is supporting someone with an addiction – or you may prefer speaking to a local counsellor.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous offers help to anyone with a drinking problem and has a free national helpline (0800 9177 650).


DrugWise promotes evidence-based information about drugs, alcohol and tobacco.


Frank offers honest facts about drugs and has a free helpline 24 hours a day, 7 hours a week (0300 123 6600), or you can text a question to 82111.

Cocaine Anonymous UK

Cocaine Anonymous UK helps people to stop using cocaine and other mind-altering substances.

Gamblers Anonymous

Gamblers Anonymous offers help and support to anyone with a gambling addiction.


Mind is a mental health charity with a mission to make sure no one has to face a mental health condition alone.


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