Spotting the Signs of Addiction

Addiction can be a difficult condition to cope with for both the individual it involves and the people around them. It affects physical health, damages mental wellbeing, and can seriously impact both work and social relationships [1].

Unfortunately, while many are aware of the destructive effect addiction can have, what isn’t so obvious is what addiction looks like. What are the signs of it? How do you know what is addiction and what isn’t?

It can be very difficult to spot whether someone is suffering, especially before the more long-term impacts come into play.

While they are more obvious, these later effects of addiction are much harder to treat. The earlier an addict is identified and provided treatment, the better their chances are of a full recovery.

Spotting addiction – What are the signs?

Addiction is such a difficult condition to detect because it can have varied effects on its victims. While there is no conclusive list of what the symptoms are, there are general patterns that occur across many cases.

1. Psychological

Some of the major signs of addiction relate to the mental wellbeing or tendencies of the individual involved. Psychological symptoms of addiction might include:

  • Feeling increasingly paranoid, angry, or agitated
  • Struggling to concentrate on tasks or conversations
  • Forgetting things or lacking good judgement
  • Taking more risks or lacking restraint
  • Having low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Showing more frequent or amplified symptoms of pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety

2. Behavioural and Social

When looking for signs of addiction, looking at how an individual interacts with others can be extremely helpful. Changes in behaviour caused by addiction might include:

  • Avoiding or abandoning responsibility, such as work commitments
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyed hobbies or social events
  • Showing decreased productivity at work or school
  • Becoming increasingly isolated or acting in a secretive way
  • Failing to reduce or stop using a certain substance or engaging with a certain activity despite negative impacts

3. Physical

Addiction can also have a considerable effect on the physical welfare of an individual. Some of the impacts might include:

  • Irregular sleep patterns – possibly insomnia
  • A disregard for personal hygiene or appearance
  • Unusual appetite changes for the individual
  • Enhanced resistance to a certain substance or activity

What exactly is an addiction?

It’s one thing to identify the signs of addiction. Knowing how these symptoms relate to addiction itself, however, can be a completely different challenge.

Learning how addiction causes these psychological, behavioural, and physical traits is also a vital part of identifying whether someone you care about is suffering from the condition or not.

Defining addiction

According to the NHS, an individual has an addiction when they frequently take a substance or engage with an activity to the point where it becomes harmful to themselves or others. Despite the danger, the individual is unable to stop their use or engagement. [1].

While many may think of drugs or alcohol when they picture addiction, it can actually involve a variety of things. People can be addicted to sex, gambling, or even their mobile phone.

How does an addiction start?

How addictions begin has been a part of psychological study for many years. While there is no single explanation for every case, we now have a good idea as to how the majority begin.

For many people, addiction starts casually. A substance or activity is introduced to them, either recreationally or via medical prescription, and the individual becomes dependent on the influence it has on them.

The ‘high’ the individual attains from the substance or activity is quickly followed by the desire to have it again. If the good feeling is then achieved again, the desire is reinforced. When the brain doesn’t get the ‘high’, it can cause withdrawal symptoms, or a ‘come down’, which the brain is not used to [1].

Harvard Medical School identifies this as the ‘Pleasure Principal’. The human brain is designed to survive, and so when an action is deemed beneficial or pleasurable, that action is reinforced.

Dopamine – the hormone associated with pleasure – released following the use of a certain substance or activity tells the brain that it is a good thing to do. Whether it is sexual endorphins, the notifications on a phone, or the thrill of winning the jackpot, if dopamine is released, the brain will try to attain it again.

This is known as the brain’s ‘Reward System’. In order to repeat pleasurable experiences, the brain will remember where you were, what you did, or what you ingested to achieve the ‘high’, and prompt you to conduct the same behaviour again.

How does addiction affect the individual?

How does the ‘Pleasure Principal’ get out of control? How does the brain rewarding itself turn into an addiction?

According to DrugWise, rather than becoming ‘addicted’, the brain and body become ‘dependent’ on the effects of the substance or activity over time. This dependency can manifest either physically or psychologically [2].

Physical dependence is where the body’s chemistry is altered by the repeated use of the substance or activity. If the new chemistry is not maintained by another ‘high’, withdrawal symptoms begin. These are similar to those of a common cold or flu.

Body chemistry is usually altered with the use of heavier drugs, such as heroin or alcohol.

Psychological dependence is much more common and involves the individual uses their ‘high’ as a means of dealing with things or improving their mood. They may feel that they cannot cope with their everyday life without it.

This type of dependency can occur with almost anything – sex, chocolate, or even a loved one. If the brain considers the substance or activity necessary for everyday life, it will be continually used.

Treating addiction – how does it work?

If someone you care about is showing signs of addiction, it can be a stressful thing to deal with. The route of treatment may seem a confusing and expensive one to take, but there are several options available to you.

There are many ways you can seek help, both for general worries and specific treatments. You can contact your GP to ask for their advice, or alternatively, there are organisations that provide advice for specific addictions such as alcohol and drug misuse [1].

For drug treatment, an appointment will be held with a medical professional where the individual discusses the details of their addiction. Other conversations maybe had about their home, work, and family life, and they may also be asked to provide a urine or saliva sample [3].

Following this initial appointment, suggestions will be made to the individual based upon their specific circumstances. In each case, they will be assigned a key worker who will support and advise them throughout the process.

To take drug misuse as an example, possible treatments might include:

  • Talking therapy – where the individual talks through their thoughts and feelings relating to their addiction
  • Medicinal treatment – in cases of physical dependence, alternative medicines may be provided to prevent withdrawal symptoms
  • Self-help – support groups may be suggested, where individuals can talk about their experiences with others undergoing similar treatment

Treatment can take place at home, in a hospital, or in a rehabilitation centre, depending on the severity of the case.

Long-term effects of untreated addiction

It is important to seek help if you or a loved one is showing signs of addiction. If untreated, the condition can have devastating long-term effects, such as:

  • Possible breakdown of professional and personal relationships
  • Unemployment and financial hardship
  • Altercations with law enforcement
  • Suicidal thoughts

As with the short-term effects, addiction to certain substances can also have an immense impact on physical health over time, including:

  • Liver damage
  • Ineffective immune system
  • Brain complications
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Increased risk to conditions such as cancer

The sooner an addiction is identified, the greater the impact treatment can have.