Addiction is the continued use of a mood altering substance or behavior that a user is unable to stop despite adverse dependency consequences and impairments. It refers to a broad range of problem behaviors and is often referred to without distinguishing between abuse, overuse, and actual addiction. Understanding the addictive process and the danger signs can help you to tell the difference between addictive behavior, problematic behavior that is not an addiction, and normal behavior that is non-problematic or healthy.

Generally speaking an addiction meets two criteria:

  1. There is difficulty controlling how much, how long, and how often the substance is used.
  2. The use continues even after it has significant negative consequences to the user’s life.

Those two criteria apply to all addictions. They are true for alcohol and drug addiction, but they’re also true for gambling and spending addiction, eating disorders, and sexual addiction to name a few. Even though a user may not be fully addicted, overuse and abuse of a substance or behavior can begin to be identified by considering the role it plays in a person’s life, and how it may interfere with activities of daily living, responsibilities, and relationships.

Addiction can be classified into two general categories: behavioral and substance use disorders. A substance addiction involves use of a mood altering chemical of some sort, such as drugs or alcohol. Although less talked about, caffeine and nicotine are considered addictive substances that can be abused.

A behavioral addiction, such as overeating or gambling, does not involve a mood altering substance. People can be engaging in more than one addiction at a time. Regardless of category, addictions and addictive patterns tend to escalate and move from overuse to addiction. Over time the impacts become greater and greater to the addict and to those around them.

The early stages of addiction typically start with overuse of a substance or behavior, and daily life begins to suffer. One does not need to be fully addicted for the addictive behavior to create problems in life or negatively impact well-being. Many people experience the symptoms of addiction for years without recognizing the problem. Over time the consequences to the user’s life get progressively worse. The late stage is the non-functioning addict. They’ve lost their job and have to use every day or multiple times per day. The late stage addict is the most common stereotype.

There is also the possibility of having a mental health disorder along with substance addiction. This occurrence is called a dual diagnosis. For example, someone who has alcohol dependence and clinical depression. I believe it can be especially helpful to work with a mental health professional who is clinically trained in psychological principals as well as addiction or chemical dependency. It is crucial when the addiction or addictive behavior is related to self-medicating or relief from psychological pain and confusion due to life events.

Although there are different kinds of addictions, there are common signs and symptoms of addiction in general. All addictions involve both physical and psychological processes. Each person’s experience of addiction is slightly different, but usually involves a cluster of some of the following symptoms of addiction:

  • Extreme mood changes
  • Tolerance increases–using, drinking, eating, spending more and more
  • Withdrawal–daily life is affected when without the behavior or substance, such as a change in mood, sleep, attitude, and eating
  • Making risky choices in order to continue the addictive behavior
  • Changes in sleep–more or less than usual, or at different times of day or night, not feeling rested even with a lot of sleep
  • Changes in energy–unexpectedly and extremely tired or energetic
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Seeming unwell at certain times, and better at others
  • Pupils of the eyes seem smaller or larger than usual
  • Unexpected and persistent coughs or sniffles
  • Lying and secretiveness
  • Overreacting, acting paranoid, distrustful in odd situations
  • Centering life around the substance or activity
  • Significant time spent focused on planning, engaging in, or recovering from the behavior or activity
  • Stealing
  • Difficulty cutting down on the behavior or activity
  • Financially unpredictable, perhaps having large amounts of cash at times, but no money at other times
  • Changes in social groups, new and unusual friends, odd phone conversations
  • Repeated unexplained outings, often with a sense of urgency

I take a holistic approach to addiction by looking at all the psychological, sociological, physiological, and environmental factors involved in each case. In order for treatment to be successful, one needs to be ready to create change, take personal responsibility for the problem, and ownership of the necessary adjustments to sustain recovery.

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