More than 23.5 million people in the United States today are struggling with substance use disorders, better known as addiction. Unfortunately, only a fraction of them will receive the treatment they need to get and stay sober. The vast majority of people with substance use disorders don’t seek help for many reasons, but the primary one seems to be denial. As the loved one of a person who uses drugs or alcohol, you’ve probably heard “I don’t have a problem” more times than you can count. Still, you may have reason to believe that there is, in fact, a problem. If you do, there are signs of addiction that you can look for that will either confirm or disprove your suspicions. However, taking note of red flags means fully understanding what addiction is and how your loved one might be affected.
What Is Addiction?
The biggest misconception about addiction is that it is an issue of morality. On the contrary, addiction is a disease and is recognized as such by medical and health professionals. In fact, substance use disorders are categorized as mental health disorders since regular exposure to drugs or alcohol alters the brain’s chemical balances. These changes incite strong physical and psychological needs for the substance of choice, regardless of the harm it causes. The resulting dependency means that the user will be unable to quit using, even if he or she wants to.
Does Substance Use Guarantee Addiction?
If your loved one uses drugs or alcohol recreationally, you may be wondering if he or she is doomed to develop an addiction. The truth is that, while occasional use of drugs or alcohol can undoubtedly cause problems, addiction may not necessarily be one of them. Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol will develop a substance use disorder. After all, you wouldn’t label yourself an alcoholic if you enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner every once in a while. The same applies to anyone who uses prescription medications— you wouldn’t call them drug addicts for taking medicine at the same time every day to treat a chronic health issue.
Of course, the risks will always be there for substances with the potential for addiction, but using them responsibly and in moderation can prevent a substance use disorder from forming. It’s also important to consider that many factors contribute to addiction outside of substance use.
The Risk Factors of Potential Addiction
The debate about the origins of addiction has gone on for decades. In recent years, researchers have identified a wide variety of risk factors outside of initial substance use that can make any given person more susceptible to developing a substance use disorder. Many of these factors are genetic, environmental, or psychological. The most frequently cited risk factors include:
- poor social skills
- low socioeconomic status
- poor parental supervision during childhood
- a history of trauma (e.g., physical or sexual abuse)
- exposure to substance use by others, like family and friends
- the use of addictive substances at an early age (e.g., tobacco)
- high accessibility to drugs and alcohol through family or friends
- exposure to pro-substance-use advertisements in popular culture
- individual psychological factors (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression, etc.)
- the addictive nature of the type of substance used (i.e., drug or alcohol)
- the frequency or patterns of substance use (e.g., social drinking vs. heavy drinking)
- potentially self-destructive personality traits such as poor impulse control or pleasure-seeking behaviors
- genetic predisposition, or a family history of substance abuse by a close relative (i.e., a parent, sibling, etc.)
- the tendency to self-medicate to treat a pre-existing psychological or psychiatric disorder (i.e., anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc.)
While these factors are frequently seen in those who struggle with addiction, it’s important to note that they are not unequivocally causational. Having or experiencing any of these factors will not automatically result in addiction. However, these factors do indicate that a person’s likelihood of developing addiction is higher than average. Also, the chances of developing addiction increase with the number of factors present.
Signs of Addiction that Friends and Family Can Look For
The signs of addiction are always different depending on the person, the substance, and whatever factors mentioned above might also be in play. Still, the red flags shown below are the most common (and most prominent) indications of onset addiction. If you are worried that your loved one is struggling with addiction, take note of how many of these signs he or she is exhibiting before taking any further action.
Physical Signs of Addiction
The physical signs of addiction vary from person to person, but there are a few that seem to be especially prevalent among anyone who abuses drugs or alcohol. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, common physical warning signs of addiction include:
- intense cravings
- constant congestion
- frequent nosebleeds
- bloodshot or glassy eyes
- a notable decline in dental health
- sudden or erratic complaints of feeling ill
- drastic physical changes, such as weight loss
- the development of sores on the face, arms, or legs
- a general decline in self-care (i.e., appearance or personal hygiene)
Mental and Emotional Signs of Addiction
While the physical warning signs of addiction may be the easiest to recognize, you may also find several psychological and emotional red flags. Addiction, after all, is medically classified as a mental disorder since it affects the brain directly. So, outside of physical changes, your loved one is also likely to experience a combination of both psychological and emotional issues that relate to his or her substance use. Common emotional, mental, or behavioral warning signs of addiction include:
- mood swings
- lethargy or fatigue
- suspicion or paranoia
Social Red Flags
In addition to the physical, mental and emotional red flags listed above, family and friends can also look for social signs of addiction. Common examples include:
- sudden or hidden legal issues
- sudden or unexplained financial problems
- involvement in delinquent or criminal activity
- relationship problems (e.g., with friends, partners, etc.)
- any significant change or downturn in routine aspects of daily life
- substance use at inappropriate times (i.e., at work, in school, etc.)
- sudden or uncharacteristic difficulties with peers at work or school
- sudden adverse changes in social dynamic (i.e., poor peer influence)
- continued substance use even in dangerous situations (e.g., driving while intoxicated, using around small children, etc.)
Behavioral Red Flags
Behavior that may indicate addiction typically include:
- lack of motivation
- atypical unreliability
- a sharp shift in priorities
- drastic changes in established habits
- the regard of substance use as “normal”
- the inability to stop using or quit entirely
- indifference to favorite activities or hobbies
- complete disregard for personal responsibilities
- unusual bursts of hyperactivity or overexcitement
- a significant decline in work or school performance
- emotional detachment or isolation from loved ones
- inattention or absent-mindedness (i.e., “spacing out”)
- substance use to cope with stressful situations or emotions
- persistence in finding and purchasing the substance of choice
- defensiveness, especially when confronted about substance use
- extensive amounts of time recuperating after recent substance use
- increased substance use to achieve the desired effect (i.e., tolerance)
- sudden changes in standard lifestyle patterns (e.g., eating and sleeping)
- sudden and radical changes in mood or personality in conjunction with known substance use
- continued substance use despite the consequences it has on health, work, school, relationships, etc.
Trust Your Instincts and Follow the Signs
Although the signs listed above are powerful indications of onset addiction, not all of them are enough to be considered proof. And, worst case scenario, you’ll need some evidence of substance abuse to get your loved one into treatment under the Baker Act. So, gather whatever information you can. Keep phone bills that list calls between your loved one and numbers that seem unusual. Hold onto letters from the bank that detail his or her financial struggles. Save any notices from work or school that show a decline in performance or conduct. Things like this will help you get the point across that it’s time for your loved one to get help.
If your loved one is showing several of the signs listed above, you may be wondering what your next move should be. You may be tempted to confront your loved one about the addiction as soon as you have concrete evidence, especially if it’s someone who lives with you. However, confronting your loved one right away is very ill-advised. Before you face your loved one, take some time to collect yourself and review what you know. After all, your goal is to help your loved one get sober; and to do that, you’ll need to be level-headed and open-minded. It’s okay to feel nervous and or even angry, but don’t let that show when it comes time to put your foot down. The first serious conversation you have with your loved one about his or her addiction will go a lot smoother if you approach it with love and concern.
Hire an Interventionist
One thing you can do to make the process easier is to talk to an interventionist. Most people plan interventions once they find concrete evidence of a loved one’s active addiction. Even if you don’t expect to hold an intervention yourself, the option to reach out to an interventionist is always there if you need guidance about confronting your loved one. If you do hold an intervention, the interventionist can help persuade your loved one to enter treatment.
Enlist Professional Help
If your loved one is in denial about his or her addiction, the next step is to bring in professional help. No matter what stage the addiction is in, it’s always a good idea to enlist the help of a doctor or counselor to convince your loved one to enter treatment. A medical physician can screen the addiction and provide more details about its progression. A counselor can offer the comfort and confidence that your loved one may need. Both professionals will also be able to recommend treatment facilities that provide programs and services best-suited to your loved one’s needs.
Watch for Any Suicidal Behavior
Discussing treatment options with your addicted loved one is a stressful and potentially triggering situation. So, it’s best to be prepared for the worst. If you discover that your loved one is contemplating, planning, or has attempted to commit suicide, call 911. You also have the option to use the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Addiction Treatment with TTC’s Outpatient Services
Although the signs of addiction highlighted here are common, this is not a full list. Every addiction is different, so the signs will always vary. Still, these particular red flags are good examples of what to look for when you suspect your loved one might be hiding something. If your loved one is struggling with addiction or having a hard time getting sober, call The Treatment Center’s Outpatient Services at (844) 665-6834 or fill out an online contact form here.