Although it goes without saying, those who have been impacted by addiction know it’s – in word – terrible. Lately there has been much-needed attention placed on the problems that addiction creates and the pain associated with it. But what exactly is addiction? How would I know if I or a loved one may be heading down the path of addiction? I’ll outline these questions and more below.
What is Addiction?
Addiction is a disease. It is a disease of the brain that results in the compulsive use of substances or engagement in some behaviors. A person that has an addiction has had changes in how their brain functions. The brain has changed primarily in the way they make decisions. This can be seen when a person does things that they may not have done in the past, such as stealing from loved ones. Someone with an addiction has different priorities, which are a result of the substance or behavior rewiring pathways in the brain to focus on the substances or behaviors before other needs or priorities. An example of this might be someone making sure there is money for alcohol instead of food or bills that need to be paid on time.
Addiction is a progressive disease. There is a saying from AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), “One is too many, and a million is not enough.” While not everyone needs to subscribe to AA, the point is a good one. Once a person starts, they will have a near impossible time stopping on their own. Each time a person engages with their substance or behavior, the habit is reinforced and the brain is rewired even stronger.
What are the Signs of Addiction?
So how do I know if I or someone I care about is addicted, or at risk for becoming addicted? There are numerous factors that can contribute to developing an addiction like genetics, trauma, environmental factors, and other medical or mental health conditions. Most people don’t realize they have a problem until their life becomes unmanageable. The most obvious signs of addiction are withdrawal and tolerance. Withdrawal is when you need your behavior or substance or you will feel ill, irritable, or just “off.” For someone who drinks, it might be waking up with a hangover or shakes, but for someone with marijuana, it could be irritability or difficulty sleeping without using. Tolerance is defined by needing more to get the same effect. This might look like drinking more often or in larger amounts to get a buzz or feel relaxed, or gambling more days than in the past or having to gamble with larger amounts to feel good about a payout, or feel a thrill.
Other indications that addiction could be a problem are from the consequences of a person’s use. Some consequences include:
- Getting into legal trouble
- Family or relationship issues
- Troubles at work that are a result of a person’s substance use or problematic behavior
Is it a Problem?
When talking about addiction, oftentimes a person will say things like, “It’s legal,” or “everyone does it.” While these statements can be technically correct, this will often obscure the problematic nature of someone’s use. As an example, there are statistics that place male porn consumption within the last month in the 90 percent range, and for females in the 60 percent range. But if there are relationship issues surrounding a person’s use, perhaps trouble at work for being caught on company property looking at porn, being secretive or ashamed of use, trouble with faith, or feeling like having to use porn to feel better, these would be signs that there is problematic use that is different from everyone else’s consumption.
So can someone be addicted to anything? No. Not everything changes the brain in the same way as some substances and activities. This doesn’t mean that they are not still problematic or interfering with a person’s life. Some problematic behaviors just haven’t been studied enough to have conclusive results yet, or there is still ongoing debate. However, I don’t recommend waiting to find out if what a person is struggling with is or is not an addiction!
People struggling with addiction still face stigma that can make it hard to reach out and get help. Shame, guilt, trauma, and mental health issues, are just a few of the things that people can be dealing with while in the middle of their addiction, and overcoming the stigma of asking for help can be daunting. Many of the ways to treat addiction are similar to treating problematic behaviors. Building routines, developing support networks, developing coping skills, as well as finding root causes that reinforce the cycle of addiction are all parts of battling addiction. Therapy and treatment provide space for someone to be able to and to find the help to live a life of recovery. There are trained addiction counselors and treatment centers to help with detoxing, getting support, and navigating the path to recovery and live the life you want.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with substance use or mental health issues you can reach out to SAMHSA’s 24-hour national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Or, contact us here (link to contact form) to learn how one of our counselors can help.
— By Brian Antrobious