Addiction is a disease that can be triggered by environmental, behavioral, or psychological causes. This chronic disease involves problems around the stimulation of the brain’s risk and reward symptoms. People who suffer from the disease of addiction find themselves compulsively in pursuit of pleasurable stimulation of their brain’s natural reward systems or relief of psychological pain. This stimulation can come from ingesting a substance like alcohol, nicotine, or heroin, or from a behavior like gambling or sex.
General signs that a person might be suffering from an addiction include:
- Inability to stop or reduce the behavior, even with conscious intention
- Lying about use
- Defensiveness when questioned, or fighting with friends or family about the problem
- Avoiding social situations
- Changes in mood, especially irritability, defensiveness, depression, or aggression
- Neglecting appearance or personal hygiene
- Physical health problems, such as insomnia, chronic pain, cold or flu symptoms, or headaches
- Problems at work or school, such as truancy or lack of work ethic
- Cravings for the substance or behavior
For people who struggle with addiction, their behavior is compulsive; it is not a choice, and it is not a failure of willpower. People who suffer from addiction have a disease. While it can be managed with professional help, people struggling with this disease do not have a choice regarding the condition; like other diseases, they can’t flip a switch to turn it off. However, it is important for individuals who struggle with addiction to a substance or behavior to get help as soon as possible. Without help, they can suffer physical side effects that cause chronic illness or even death; emotional side effects, like damage to relationships; financial problems; higher risk of comorbid diseases; and psychological side effects, including long-term cognitive impairment.
Common Symptoms of Addiction to Various Substances or Behaviors
There are a few behaviors that are common among all people who suffer from addiction. However, some physical symptoms differ depending on the substance or behavior that is involved in the addiction. Here are a few symptoms of addiction based on specific behaviors and substances:
- Alcohol: Alcohol addiction is called alcohol use disorder, and it involves the compulsive consumption of alcoholic beverages to feel normal or good. People who struggle with alcohol use disorder are unable to limit the amount of alcohol they drink. They spend more and more time drinking, or excuse themselves from work, school, or social engagements to drink. They use alcohol in unsafe situations, and they feel withdrawal symptoms when unable to or attempting to quit drinking, like sweating, shaking, nausea, anxiety, and depression. Excessive drinking on a consistent basis puts the individual at risk of physical problems, like cognitive impairment and liver damage, as well as alcohol poisoning, which can lead to death. Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the US, with 17.6 million people struggling with alcohol use disorder. That’s 1 in 12 adults in the country.
- Drugs: Drugs, other than alcohol, are commonly abused in the United States. These substances include several kinds of prescription medications, as well as illegal “street” drugs. Marijuana, nicotine, prescription painkillers, prescription amphetamines, meth, ecstasy, benzodiazepines, cocaine, and heroin are all addictive substances that many people abuse. Symptoms of addiction to opiates include fatigue, slowed breathing, low blood pressure, and cold- or flu-like symptoms. Symptoms of addiction to methamphetamines or other stimulants like cocaine include high energy, paranoia and anxiety, twitches and tremors, insomnia, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, and stroke. General symptoms of drug addiction include nausea, vomiting, physical tolerance to the substance, blackouts, lying about the problem, stealing, and comorbid diseases, like some sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis, and bacterial or fungal infections.
- Behavioral addictions: While many people assume that addiction is limited to substances that change brain chemistry, some behaviors can be addictive as well. These behaviors flood the brain with neurotransmitters like endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline, making individuals feel stimulated and rewarded. Even when these behaviors are damaging, individuals continue to compulsively engage in the behavior in order to stimulate the flood of neurotransmitters. Symptoms of behavioral addictions, such as gambling addiction, shopping addiction, or sex addiction, include:
- Obsessive thinking about the behavior
- Compulsively engaging in the behavior, even when the person knows it is damaging
- Suffering withdrawal symptoms like nausea, anxiety, restlessness, or sweating when unable to engage in the behavior
- Denying the behavior occurs or hiding evidence of the behavior (for example, hoarding purchases or destroying receipts)
- Feelings of inability to control the environment, especially when unable to engage in the behavior
- Greater risk-taking to achieve more of a “high,” such as seeking out more dangerous sexual encounters, to get the same feeling
- Blacking out during the behavior; inability to remember the activity (for example, people suffering from gambling addiction may not remember that they gambled online)
Whether a person suffers from an addiction to a substance or behavior, it is important to get treatment to prevent further damage. Substance use disorders can be physically dangerous and may require medical detox in addition to comprehensive therapy.
How to Safely Overcome an Addiction
Professional help offers individuals struggling with addiction the best chances of achieving long-term recovery. When individuals attempt to quit on their own, the chances of relapse are generally higher. Inpatient rehabilitation facilities work well because they allow medical oversight for individuals struggling with substance use disorders, in addition to individual therapy, group therapy, and complementary therapies and activities.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown as an effective treatment for behavioral addictions, as well as substance use disorders, by helping individuals recognize when they have cravings and find other ways to cope with stress and the desire for the addictive behavior. Talk therapy can help individuals uncover the underlying issues that contributed to their struggle with addiction. Group therapy can provide social and emotional support from others struggling with similar issues.