“When I was depressed or feeling anxious, I used a natural coping mechanism. In other words, I had a drink or two. Alcohol was great because it settled the anxiety and made me feel better for a while. It's only in hindsight I can see that wasn't a solution, it was just adding to the problem.”
People rely on substances for many reasons: for fun, to be social with friends, to deal with stressful situations, or to escape from other things going on in their lives.
Misuse of substances such as alcohol and drugs puts you at risk of physical and psychological harm, both short-term and long-term. Addictions aren’t limited to alcohol and drugs; they include gambling, smoking, shopping, gaming, and sex, among other things.
With all addictive disorders, you can develop strong cravings, find it hard to cut down, or experience withdrawal when you do. Substance and other addictions can put you at risk of developing mental health conditions, or make existing mental health conditions much worse.
To find out if you have an addictive disorder, you will need to have an assessment with a health professional, like a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist.
We have some information on seeking professional support that can help you get started. Or you can take a look at the resources below.
When does an addictive behaviour become a problem?
You may spend a lot of time involved in your addictive behaviour, thinking about doing it, or recovering from its effects. With substances, over time you may need to consume more than you used to, to get the same satisfaction. You may have problems at work, or constant fights with your partner because of your addiction. You might find yourself lying about your addiction, or making excuses for it. Another sign is taking dangerous risks.
An addiction also becomes a problem when you feel distressed about it, it puts you in danger physically or emotionally, or it affects your ability to care for yourself. You may want to think about seeking advice if you identify with any of these problems, or if you experience negative effects when you stop.
A closer look
Alcohol use is really common in Australia
In 2016, Australians were drinking less frequently compared to 2013, with more people reporting that they drank less often than weekly. However, 1 in 4 Australians were still drinking more than the health guidelines of 4 standard drinks on a single occasion - which increases the risk of alcohol-related injuries. There are ways to drink at a less risky level, while still being able to have fun. Strategies include: setting limits and sticking to them, alternating with non-alcoholic drinks, drinking slowly, eating before or while drinking, and trying drinks with lower alcohol content. (Source 1) (Source 2)
Strategies for improvement and recovery
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be quite effective in helping people change specific habits and thoughts. Other techniques for self-directed change include stress management, mindfulness, and learning to avoid high-risk situations. These situations can include being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired; but also locations, people, and situations that encourage the addictive action. (Source 1) (Source 2)
Substance use disorders and mental health problems often go hand in hand
In Australia, 35% of people with a substance use disorder also have a mood or anxiety disorder. Around half of all Australians who experience a severe mental illness are affected by substance abuse. These disorders are closely linked. Alcohol or other drug use makes other symptoms worse, and many people can have trouble controlling their substance use when their symptoms are worse. Seeking a counsellor or mental health professional who has experience with both can be very helpful. (Source)
Around 800,000 Australians experience an addictive or substance use disorder
This figure is from within a 12-month period, and relates to 7% of males, and 3.3% of females. About 400,000 Australians are problem gamblers or at moderate risk, which is 1.8% of the population. 70% or so Australians gambled in some form in the last 12 months. There are many addictive disorder professionals who can help you get your life on track again through and beyond addiction. You can also find self-assessment tools and free workshop programs online. Take a look at the resources below to help you get started. (Source 1) (Source 2)
Brain functioning of gambling addiction looks similar to substance addiction
Brain imaging studies show that when a person gambles, the reward centres of the brain that are activated are the same as those of a cocaine addict who has just taken a dose. If you are faced with an addiction and would like to talk to a professional online, you can find free support using phone, chat, and email. (Source)
Taking action for change
The first thing to do is to take note of how much you are using, and when. Creating a recovery plan with help from a family member, friend or support service can be useful. This plan may include online self-help programs, and advice and support from other organisations or local community services. Treating any underlying mental health conditions is crucial, and may include counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy, or medication.
If you are using from time to time, you could try some self-help strategies like relaxation techniques. It’s critical to spend time with friends and family who do not promote or enable your addiction. Taking care of your physical health is also important.
If you have a serious addiction, and you've tried to stop your addictive behaviour but can't, it's important to seek professional support.
Helping someone with an addictive disorder
Partners, families, and friends can play an active role in recovery by learning about the addiction, encouraging better habits, and being supportive. This can make all the difference in overcoming the problem. Accepting that there may be a relapse on the road to recovery from addictive disorders is also important.
When someone is taking steps to reduce or stop an addiction, you can show your support. It helps to encourage and motivate the person, and avoid enabling addictive behaviour with money or opportunities for the activity.
If you are involved in supporting someone experiencing an addiction, it is important to look after yourself as well. You can find more information on our support for carers page.
You might find online and phone-based mental health resources helpful. Some suggestions are below. You can find more with our Search tool (opens in a new tab).