Despite the volume of literature regarding addiction, there seems to be more of a focus on how to battle this disease, rather than the exhibiting signs of addiction. But like so many illnesses, recognizing the early signs of addiction is one of the keys of treating the disease, because it enables modification of behavior that can prevent a worsening of the addiction.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to treating addiction; it’s a lifelong process that demands vigilance and discipline, but it is possible to claim victory over addiction with maximum commitment and dedication. With that in mind, there are five signs of addiction that can help addicts and those who are involved in their treatment. But before delving into those signs, it is important to first understand the actual meaning of an addiction.
Addiction Is Dependence
At the root of all addiction is a dependence that is not controllable. A person who has an addiction can no longer choose not to do the thing that is causing the dependence. So alcoholics can no longer stop at one or two drinks, they have an overwhelming desire to consume alcohol beyond their body’s ability to metabolize that alcohol. Whether the addiction is to a drug, alcohol, nicotine, sex or gambling, the commonality of the dependence is based on the fact that they cannot stop their behavior.
The part of their brain that controls logic, understands that the behavior is physically and mentally destructive, but there is another part of their brain that craves nicotine, alcohol, drugs or sex, and it is immune to reason. There is a biological basis for addiction that is related to the mesolimbic pathway in the brain, which consists of neurons that create and release dopamine whenever people perform an action or engage in a behavior that makes them feel good.
Dopamine transmits sensations of pleasure that are enhanced by drug use, sex, and alcohol consumption. This creates an obsessive need in addicts to relive these pleasurable sensations over and over, and makes them seek out the stimuli that created the sensation. After awhile, the stimuli needs to be greater and greater, because the addict craves more intense pleasure and satisfaction, which ultimately will never be enough.
The level of dependence is based on how the stimuli affects a person’s body. Some addicts can get high on a small amount of drugs, whereas other addicts need a great quantity to achieve that same euphoria.
Addiction treatment is a long, arduous process, but recognizing the five important signs of this disease is vital to the success of the addict.
1. Risk Taking Behavior
One of the clearest signs of addiction is a sudden increase in risk-taking behavior. This can take many forms, but for drug and alcohol addicts, this behavior typically involves using those substances at work, or during recreational periods with friends and family. The nature of addiction is such that it creates cravings and impulses that have nothing to do with logic.
As a result, addicts will often exhibit unusual behavior that is predicated on satisfying their dependence, even if that satisfaction occurs at the workplace. This is defined as risk-taking behavior, because there are negative consequences to taking drugs or drinking at work, most notably, termination of employment.
But this behavior is also risky in social settings, because often times, addicts will attempt to hide their addiction from friends and family, not just to avoid hurting them emotionally, but because they don’t want anyone to tell them that they have a problem.
In some instances, risk-taking behavior may also include stealing drugs or alcohol, engaging in unprotected sex (for sex addicts), and even stealing money to buy drugs and alcohol, or to gamble.
2. Excessive Consumption
This may seem obvious, but addicts almost never recognize their own excessive consumption of a substance, because they are often in denial that a problem exists. That’s why it’s vital that people close to addicts are able to detect that increase in consumption. For example, it’s very difficult for alcoholics to hide their drinking, because it becomes so prevalent and frequent that it is obvious even to casual observers. The key aspect of an addiction is that it will manifest itself in ways that become noticeable, if those who are close to the addict are paying attention.
The issue is that many addicts will deny that they have an addiction. They will attribute their excess consumption to stress, anxiety, problems at work, problems at home, but never acknowledge that they have developed a dependence they cannot control.
In fact, one of the main defensive mechanisms of addiction is that addicts will often make others feel as if they are over-reacting or being judgmental. That is a psychological buffer that helps addicts fend off inquiries into their addiction by deflecting responsibility.
3. Abdicating Responsibilities
As addiction takes control of a person’s body, it also begins to affect their psychological views regarding duties and responsibilities. The reason is that the brain is overwhelmed by cravings for drugs, alcohol or sex, and as a result, that becomes the main life-driving force: satisfying that craving.
This often means that addicts gradually begin to lose focus of the day-to-day responsibilities that govern a normal person’s life. Addicts who are students may stop going to classes and doing homework, because they are consumed by the next fix. Addicts who have full-time jobs may begin showing up at work late, or forego work entirely because they are feeling withdrawal symptoms, or they are too exhausted or high to do the job
Addicts who are parents may begin to neglect their children, and if those children are infants, that can become a dangerous situation.
The abdication of responsibilities is a gradual process, but as the addiction deepens, it becomes clear to observers that the addict has lost the motivation and desire to perform the daily tasks that are part of a normal, thriving lifestyle.
4. Physical Changes
Addiction doesn’t just transform the way the brain works; it also creates some telltale physical changes.
Friends and family members of an alcoholic may begin to notice that the addict has unexplained tremors and shaking. They may observe excessive amount of perspiration, increased anxiety, insomnia and even vomiting. Alcoholics and drug addicts often suffer blackouts, and these incidents are noticeable because the addict cannot explain what happened during a specific period of time.
Drug addicts may get the chills and tremors, but they also exhibit physical manifestations such as muscle cramps, clenched teeth, dilated pupils and hallucinations. Unexplained weight loss is another physical change that accompanies addiction.
Observers of these physical changes must not simply attribute it to a ‘phase’ or some other explanation that an addict may provide. In many instances, more than one of these physical changes will be present in the addict, a sure sign that a serious problem is at hand.
In some instances, addiction may not present any physical changes that are noticeable to people close to the addict. However, drug and alcohol addiction nearly always results in withdrawal symptoms, especially in the early stages of that addiction, as the body is still becoming accustomed to the cycling of consumption and cessation.
Although there are some physical signs of withdrawal, many of the signs are psychological and manifest in different ways. For example, the addict may become far more restless in normal situations. The addict is unable to sit still for even short periods of time, and may grow resentful about having to perform mundane tasks that were previously a source of pleasure.
During withdrawal periods, addicts are often defensive, irritable and combative. Innocent remarks are taken as an affront, and things that never used to bother the addict, suddenly become huge issues that result in arguments.
What is most telling is that this behavior virtually disappears after the addict has indulged in alcohol or drugs, because the brain is momentarily sated and sends out signals of satisfaction, peace and calm.
But once the ‘high’ wears off, the cycle of withdrawal begins again.
That’s the reason addiction deepens over time, because the addict wants to reduce the negative symptoms of withdrawal, and extend the periods of pleasure.
It is also why getting clean is such a challenge for addicts, because the idea of being cut off from those intensely pleasurable feelings and emotions experienced during a ‘high,’ is unfathomable and a physical burden that is difficult to overcome.
Treatment As a Lifestyle
One of the biggest hurdles addicts face is understanding that initial treatment is just the first step in a long journey. Many addicts believe that they are ‘cured’ once they stop drinking, taking drugs, gambling, or engaging in sex with many partners.
But the truth is that addiction treatment must continue through an addict’s life, and become a part of how they choose to live going forward. There is no magic bullet or miracle cure for addiction, because it isn’t just about the substance and the craving, it’s also about the mindset that created the addiction.
Some addicts are more genetically predisposed to their addiction, while for others, a combination of past history, trauma and other psychological factors, plays a larger role in how they developed their disease.
The support of family, friends and trained counselors is vital to the success of a treatment program. But more important is understanding that addiction is never cured. This truth can help create the motivation for addicts to achieve daily victory over their temptations.
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