Strategies for breaking free from heroin addiction

As the apparent ‘king of the opioids,’ heroin is notoriously potent. Heroin has been linked with high levels of addiction for decades. The risks associated with the drug were established not too long after its initial synthesis in 1897. In 2019, 80% of 600,000 global drug-related deaths were linked to opioids. Whilst the specific data on heroin is not cited, we can conclude that many of these instances were linked to heroin use.

On the surface, this high mortality rate indicates the huge risk related to heroin use. But, it also indicates an unmet treatment need for those dealing with heroin addiction. Currently, less than 10% of people struggling with opioid addiction are in active treatment. That means that, starkly, 90% of individuals are not currently accessing appropriate care for their opioid addictions. Breaking from the grasp of dependency can be a very difficult endeavour. For some people, the idea of accessing help can be overwhelming; where do you start? Who do you talk to? What does treatment actually look like, and do I qualify for it?

The signs of heroin addiction

Arguably, learning the signs of addiction is a precursor to any form of recovery. Once we establish what an addiction looks like, we can self-reflect and take stock of our situations. This allows us to come to a period of recognition where we identify that, currently, we would benefit from accessing formal support.
Heroin addiction manifests in two key areas:

  • ‘typical’ addiction symptoms
  • specific symptoms related to heroin

General signs of an addiction

  • low, depressed mood
  • flat emotional affect
  • increased anxiety
  • periods of euphoria
  • agitation
  • short fuse
  • appearing paranoid or defensive
  • being deceitful
  • social withdrawal
  • change in social activities
  • shift in sleeping pattern
  • feeling dizzy
  • reduced attention to hygiene and self care
  • financial issues
  • potential engagement in criminal activity
  • conflict in relationships
  • increased instances of illness
  • frequent hangovers
  • running hot and cold
  • tremors
  • difficulties maintaining work commitments (potentially leading to unemployment)
  • aches and pains (particularly in the head and muscles)
  • shift in eating habits (often leading to weight change)
  • feeling disoriented

Symptoms of heroin addiction

  • bruises or ‘track marks’ (particularly in arms and legs)
  • evidence of sharps or other drug paraphernalia (spoons, foils, used needles, ‘baggies)
  • hiding heroin in the home
  • cognitive impairment
  • soft tissue infections (including abscesses and cellulitis)
  • development of bloodborne viruses such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis
  • vascular disease
  • damage to veins
  • double vision
  • drooping eyelids
  • change in speech
  • difficulty swallowing
  • dryness in the mouth
  • muscle aches, pains, or weakness
  • swelling of the tongue
  • difficulty breathing

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms in relation to your heroin use, it is likely that you are dealing with an addiction.

The effects of heroin addiction

We can perhaps identify the impacts of heroin addiction most clearly by examining large-scale datasets. In England, almost half (49%) of those in treatment for addiction in 2021-2022 were seeking support for heroin dependency.

Housing and finances

Data indicates that those dealing with heroin addiction are more likely to experience issues with housing than individuals seeking treatment for other drugs.

  • 17% of individuals (5,347) in treatment for opiate addiction reported having a ‘housing problem’
  • 13% of individuals (4,088) in treatment for opiate addiction reported having ‘an urgent housing problem.’

This suggests that individuals with a heroin addiction are at a high risk of experiencing homelessness. A report from Crisis suggests that ‘two-thirds of homeless people cite drug or alcohol use as a reason for first becoming homeless.’ The data indicates that people who use drugs are 7 times more likely to be homeless than those who do not. However, homelessness is not always a consequence of drug addiction; it can also be a cause. Crisis explains that individuals who are ‘traumatised by homelessness’ commonly ‘seek solace in drugs or alcohol.’
This suggests that drugs and homelessness have a complex relationship that can escalate into cycles of use that both exacerbate mental health issues and, therefore, lead to addiction deepening.

Many individuals also experience unemployment: an estimated 80% of individuals dealing with risky drug use are not currently in employment. [10] This can be a barrier to treatment access but also create a sense of social degradation that can be difficult to carry for long periods of time.

Health effects

Heavy heroin use has the potential to impact both the body and the mind. The key mental health effect is the risk of developing an addiction. When this occurs, you are likely to feel both physically and emotionally absorbed by heroin.

Mental health

In England, 66% of people in treatment for opiate addiction had a mental health treatment need between 2021-2. Data indicates that at least 22% of people using drugs have not received any form of support for their mental health. Common dual diagnoses for individuals dealing with heroin addiction include:

  • borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • depression
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • and antisocial personality disorder (APD)

These conditions can manifest in a range of different symptoms, such as instances of paranoia, anhedonia, catatonic periods, clinically low mood and extreme mood swings. Instances of dual diagnosis in those dealing with heroin addictions are typically linked to a higher mortality rate.

Physical Health

Drug use takes a toll on the body; using heroin regularly can create a strain on the cardiovascular and renal systems in particular.
However, One of the main areas of concern in terms of physical health is related to the mode of heroin use. Injecting heroin can lead to an increased level of risk of both infection and sharps-related injury. Associated health complications include:

  • botulism
  • abscesses
  • tetanus
  • bacterial endocarditis
  • osteomyelitis
  • hepatitis c
  • deep vein thrombosis
  • issues with pain management

Heroin users may also be more likely to encounter reduced access to contraception, which can lead to the development of unexpected pregnancy and the contracting of sexually transmitted diseases.

Social factors

Drug addiction is linked to an increased likelihood of social withdrawal. As loneliness can often be a predicting factor for periods of depression, this means that a cycle of isolation-induced drug use can become chronic. Isolation in individuals with heroin addiction can be voluntary or otherwise; regardless of the situation, it can lead to a sense of disillusionment, a reduction in well-being, and, ultimately, a deepening of addiction.

The stigma around addiction can exacerbate this. There is a risk that some individuals may not access support at earlier stages due to the fear of social stigma and prejudice. This can inadvertently ‘lock’ people into patterns of behaviour for longer, which then makes the addiction more difficult to tackle later on. Or, unfortunately, it can be a contributing factor to overdose – either intentional or otherwise.

Life after addiction: The benefits of recovery

Heroin addiction recovery is not always a straightforward journey. But that does not mean that the results are not genuinely life-changing for many people. A lot of individuals explain how addiction treatment ‘gave them their life back,’ providing them with new focus, motivation, and joy: it can usher in a new start. But what are the specific benefits of recovery?
For a lot of people, life after heroin addiction dramatically improves in a range of areas. These can be personal, physical, and social.

Personal benefits
  • a renewed sense of confidence
  • development of transferable coping skills
  • higher levels of distress tolerance
  • greater emotional awareness
  • emotional and mental clarity
  • a restored focus
  • increased trust and self belief 
  • greater readiness to address difficult memories, thoughts and emotions 
  • development of new hobbies and self care routines
Physical benefits
  • consistent energy levels 
  • more regular sleeping patterns 
  • more regular eating patterns
  • decreased likelihood of aches and pains
  • decreased likelihood of hangovers 
  • decreased likelihood of developing coughs, colds and flu
Social benefits
  • development of empathy and interpersonal skills
  • the founding of lifelong friends and support networks 
  • healthier connections with your children 
  • less strain on romantic relationships
  • fewer socio economic stresses 
  • higher attainment at work or school

When you begin to feel these benefits, it may feel like a complete lifestyle shift. Interrupting the addiction cycle is incredibly powerful; in the absence of heroin, you can experience a myriad of improvements across all areas of life. This can produce a powerful mood boost that acts as a form of harm prevention against relapse.

Recovering from heroin addiction: Practical steps

Beginning recovery can feel like standing at the bottom of a mountain; there is a long way to climb. But with the right tools and support, you can begin to make your ascent. The first step comes in recognising that heroin addiction is present in your life. Once you can accept this fact, the subsequent steps may not feel quite as daunting.

Building a Support System

One of the initial actions you can take is by talking about your situation. You can build your support network in a myriad of places, including by:

  • speaking with doctors or other primary care clinicians
  • contacting charities
  • contacting specialist addiction providers
  • seeking out support groups
  • seeking out your local drug service
  • being open and honest with friends and family

Recent research suggests that ‘perceived family cohesion, social support and quality of life’ are important factors in the addiction recovery process. By building your support network, you can build the foundations of effective systems of connection and care.


Strategies to combat heroin addiction

Addiction treatment involves a range of diverse therapies and treatments that approach addiction from a range of different angles. Using formal treatment as a model, we can see that different strategies to combat addiction can be more helpful for some individuals than others. For that reason, it is important to try a range of techniques to give yourself the best chance at reaching sobriety. Some potential strategies to implement include:


  • have a plan of what to do during a crisis
  • regularly check in with others
  • use mindfulness techniques
  • keep a gratitude journal
  • find (or rediscover) a new hobby
  • practice self compassion
  • read self-help books
  • engage with therapy
  • make sure you spend social time with loved ones
  • write a list of things you would like to achieve in the future
  • avoid media that may in any way glorify the use of heroin
  • identifying your triggers to help you manage the risk of relapse
  • avoid people, places and activities that may have previously been associated with heroin use
  • keep a mood diary (establishing patterns can help us reduce our risk of relapse)
  • reduce use of drugs over time (take heroin less frequently or in smaller amounts)
  • speak to individuals with a history of drug use for tips, support and advice
  • pay attention to your mental health (including taking prescribed medications)
  • pay attention to your physical health (including taking prescribed medication)
  • do not go cold turkey – utilise heroin detox or some form of maintenance management
  • write a recovery letter to yourself (include your reasons for wanting to stay clean)
  • keep a substance diary (note down when you use, how much you use, and the circumstances around the use)

Recovery from heroin looks different for everyone. Take some time to read through the above list, and highlight 3-5 strategies that benefit you the most in the current moment. This is a way to take positive action without becoming too overwhelmed by implementing many changes too soon. As the strategies become increasingly embedded into your daily life, you should incorporate more into your recovery practice.

Access Heroin Addiction Treatment

Heroin rehab can be a pivotal turning point in many people’s lives. If you feel ready to access treatment for heroin addiction, we aim to make the process as smooth as possible. From early queries to admission, from detox and therapy sessions to complimentary aftercare, our goal at UKAT is to offer a comprehensive model of support that gives you the best possible chance of a life without heroin.

There are many ways to loosen the grip of heroin addiction. These may all start with what seems like small steps. However, they can lead to the development of recovery strategies you take with you for the rest of your life.

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