Drugs, alcohol, exercise, sex, pornography, gambling....It seems anything pleasurable can become addictive, but how to draw the line between a harmless hobby and a problem? What elements of therapy are most important in helping tackle addictions?
Psychotherapy for persistent and problematic behaviours
It seems that almost anything pleasurable can become addictive. Whether it be drugs, alcohol, exercise, pornography, sex, gambling or the internet, the type of dependencies capable of being formed are almost as varied as the people who form them. But how are they distinguished from a harmless hobby? How much do you have to engage in a certain activity for it to be deemed problematic?
There are no hard and fast rules here, as they are entirely subject to the particulars of each person’s situation, but a general definition of an addiction can be understood as the continued use of a substance or behaviour despite adverse dependency consequences. For example, continuing to drink heavily despite being diagnosed with liver problems, finding ways to carry on gambling even after having to file for bankruptcy because of it, or choosing infidelity and encounters with sex workers even though it is destroying your marriage. We’ve all heard of stories like these either in our own lives, or those of friends, acquaintences or celebrities: what is common to them all are the prioritising of immediate gratification (the addiction) over long term costs.
The mechanisms of addiction are both psychological and physiological. For many, their addiction is all they can think about: even if they are able to maintain many of their usual activities such as employment and relationships, it is always the first thing on their mind when they wake, and the last when they go to sleep, buzzing in the background at all times in between. Also, (particularly for substance-based addictions), physiological effects are common too.
A person may begin for example by using half a gram of cocaine at a time and feeling high. Over time, however, their body will adapt to this and require increasingly larger amounts to achieve the original effects (tolerance), until they find themselves with a habit that is costing them hundreds of pounds a day to maintain. This descent into heavier use can feel hard to escape, especially when horrible psychological and physical (withdrawal) symptoms are experienced when trying to cut down or completely stop. These can include anxiety, irritability, intense cravings, nausea, hallucinations, headaches, cold sweats and tremors.
Here at The House Partnership, our highly qualified therapists have extensive experience in helping a diverse range of people. We work with our clients, helping them to carve their own unique path away from addiction, towards an understanding of how their problems are being maintained, and how to choose responses to their thoughts and feelings that will help them to maintain a commitment to long term payoffs, as opposed to the immediate but damaging gratification of their addictions.
Our therapists are experienced in helping with not only addictions themselves, but also a range of emotional issues which are often related to or underlying them such as low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Sometimes, the key to abandoning addictive behaviours is actually focussing on the issues they are an attempt to mask or alleviate.
Just as no two clients or their concerns are exactly the same, so therapy itself cannot be ‘one size fits all’. Recovery is a deeply personal and unique process, and there is no single ‘right’ way to recover from addiction. Our addiction therapists have been trained in a number of therapeutic approaches which they tailor to the exact needs of each individual. They build their therapeutic solution around the client, rather than trying to force each person they see to fit the same theory of approach.
Therapy, particularly for addictions, is not something that can be done ‘to’ you. It is an active, collaborative process and, though the expertise of the therapist is important, the greatest catalyst for change must always be the client themselves. Approaching us for help in the first place is often the hardest and most important step, for this requires two important factors crucial for successful recovery: a recognition that your behaviours are problematic, and a willingness to change.
Crucial to The House Partnership’s approach to addiction therapy is a culture of openness and acceptance. Unlike hardline ‘abstinence-only’ approaches such as the 12 step program in the USA (where people are expelled from help for the slightest mishap), we do not view relapse as a ‘back to square one’ situation that you should be punished for (though that is not to say that relapse is encouraged!).
Recovery from addiction is rarely a straighforward, linear process in which you decide to stop and never engage in addictive behaviours again. Indeed, if it was that easy, nobody would need the help of a therapist! Of course, relapses are setbacks, but they don’t have to negate all your prior hard work, or mean that recovery is impossible. Periods of relapse are when the most help and support is needed, not abandonment or shaming. We encourage you to use these frustrating situations for productive ends, as a chance to learn your ‘triggers’ or warning signs for relapse, and how to mitigate them.
In this way, we maintain a non-judgemental position, in which our clients can feel comfortable in being open and honest with us without fear of being looked down on or punished. A positive therapeutic relationship between client and therapist is a critical factor for success – often more critical than the therapeutic approach chosen – and it is one that we recognise must be underpinned by trust.