What Is Addiction Therapy & How Does It Work?

What Is Addiction Therapy?

Addiction therapy is the term used to describe a wide range of talking therapies, treatments, and intervention strategies designed to treat addiction. It’s most commonly associated with the treatment of abuse of substances like drugs or alcohol that has reached the level of being classified as an addiction.

However, it’s also sometimes used to help people deal with and overcome other forms of addiction, such as gambling or sex. This is because addiction therapy strategies are largely adapted from general therapeutic techniques which, in short, aim to help people explore their underlying issues and develop coping mechanisms.

And, just like talking therapy for any other issue, addiction therapy comes in a range of forms. From CBT to contingency management, there are lots of different ways to address a problem with addiction, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

We’re here to give you all of the basic information you need about addiction therapy, including when it might be appropriate, why it’s so important, and what it most often involves.


What’s the difference between habit and addiction?

We all know what habits are – the tendencies or routines that we’ve developed over time and that almost seem to happen subconsciously. Despite them feeling like subconscious choices, we actually have control over our habits. It may take time, but you can decide to change or stop habits altogether. 

An addiction is defined as a habit that is out of control. People with an addiction, no matter what they’re addicted to, are typically dependent on it to cope with their everyday life. Addictions also generally have detrimental effects on the person’s health or wellbeing, and can even negatively affect the people around them.

And, while bad habits can be changed with enough effort, people with an addiction can feel an overwhelming need or compulsion to act on it regularly. This is because addictions have significant effects on brain chemistry, changing the way that dopamine (sometimes known as the brain’s reward system) is produced and released. In other words, addicted people can become reliant on the substance or activity they misuse for happiness, fulfilment, or satisfaction.

Common addictions include the misuse of some of the main drugs used in the UK, such as:

  • Opioids
  • Cocaine
  • Benzodiazepines
  • MDMA

However, people can also be addicted to other substances, or even behaviours, including:

  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Painkillers
  • Sex
  • Gambling
  • Food


If you’re wondering how to tell if your behaviour is more typical of a bad habit or an addiction, using the following checklist of questions is a good place to start:

  1. Is your behaviour having a negative impact on your life?
  2. Do you repeatedly find yourself in risky situations because of your behaviour?
  3. When you stop the behaviour, do you experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety or stress?
  4. Have you taken any steps to hide your behaviour?
  5. Have you repeatedly, but unsuccessfully tried to stop your behaviour?

Answering yes to one or more of the above questions doesn’t mean you definitely have an addiction, but it is a useful indicator that you could use to explore your behaviour further. 


Why is addiction therapy necessary?

Given the impact that addiction has on the brain, it’s nowhere near as simple to address as a bad habit. Addiction is a chronic disease that undermines the brain’s regular functions. A simple way of thinking about it is that it changes what your brain recognises as desirable activities.

The brain’s reward system typically fires when we do things like eat, talk with friends, or exercise – in other words, things that are good for our wellbeing and survival. But addiction behaviours, especially of substances, trigger the reward system, too, releasing dopamine and creating a desire to repeat the activity.

Without support or treatment, people with addictions are faced with what can feel like an impossible challenge – ignoring their brain’s strongest signals. That’s why addiction therapy is so important.

Designed to provide people with a space to explore their behaviours guilt-free, it can be a formative experience. The benefits of addiction therapy can include the successful development of coping strategies to deal with cravings, a change in the way you think about your behaviours, and minimisation of some of the common side effects of addiction, like anxiety or depression.


Types of addiction therapy

Just like therapy for other issues, such as relationship problems, mental health concerns, or childhood trauma, addiction therapy comes in a variety of forms. Each one uses a different approach to explore the factors behind the addiction, but they all make efforts to help people learn how to better control their thought-patterns and behaviour. Although not exhaustive of all potential types of therapy for addiction, these are some of the most common forms used:


Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy that shows high response rates when applied in all sorts of situations, including to address anxiety and general stress. It’s also applicable in addiction therapy. 

The CBT model aims to alter negative or damaging behaviours by correcting problematic thought patterns. In the case of addiction, these thought patterns relate to high-risk situations where cravings are triggered. 

CBT for addiction will typically aim to teach people how to better cope with these situations, imparting strategies to avoid them altogether or deal with them more effectively when they do occur.

Motivational interviewing

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a different type of one-on-one therapy that’s also used to support people with addictions. It focuses on helping people to understand the problems their addiction causes, and is particularly geared towards those who aren’t yet ready to properly address their behaviours.

Denial is one of the most prominent barriers preventing people with addictions from making positive progress. Through non-confrontational, non-judgemental motivational interviewing, therapists can help people to recognise their problem and become more aware of the impact it has on them and others around them. This can have a motivating impact that outperforms traditional therapies.

Family therapy

Addictions don’t just affect the people who have them – they can also have both direct and indirect detrimental effects on the people closest to them. This includes families, which is why family therapy is another common step in an addiction therapy journey.

Behavioural therapy that involves family members can give them a platform to communicate their feelings about the addiction and how it impact them. It’s also an opportunity for them to learn how to change their own behaviours to avoid enabling the addiction.

Contingency management 

Contingency management is another type of addiction therapy, revolving around the idea of tangible rewards and consequences for certain behaviours. It’s generally applied in addiction therapy targeting people who struggle to see sobriety as its own reward, which may include young adults or teenagers.

Therapists employing a contingency management approach make use of incentives such as money or retail vouchers to reward and reinforce positive behavioural changes. They may also devise disincentives to counter negative behaviours. It’s efficacy has been proven through meta-analyses, but it’s not particularly common in practice.