Pathways Wellness

How Do I Know When My Substance Use Becomes Addiction?

How Do I Know When My Substance Use Becomes Addiction?
Raul Haro
September 14, 2023
With how normalized substance use is in our society, it can be hard to tell when a person's substance use becomes addiction. It's a daily occurrence to be bombarded with ads for addictive substances. It has gotten to the point where people who abstain from alcohol and other substances are sometimes seen as weird or […]
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How Do I Know When My Substance Use Becomes Addiction?

With how normalized substance use is in our society, it can be hard to tell when a person's substance use becomes addiction. It's a daily occurrence to be bombarded with ads for addictive substances. It has gotten to the point where people who abstain from alcohol and other substances are sometimes seen as weird or boring by their peers. But on the other hand, substance use is also heavily stigmatized. Especially when it comes to “hard” drugs and substances. This stigma can prevent those in need of help from seeking it due to feelings of shame or fear.

The portrayal of substances in media as a form of self-medication for pain while stigmatizing it can be confusing. This confusion can make it difficult for the average person to recognize when substance use becomes addiction. Someone can struggle with an addiction and not realize it until it has caused harm to themselves or others. That is why it is so important for the public to recognize the signs of addiction. 

Places like Pathways Wellness Center work to not only educate the public about addiction but also change how society views addiction in general. Knowing the signs of addiction isn't enough. It's also understanding how and why substance use becomes addiction. Doing so not only helps encourage an individual to get the help they need, it also changes the public's opinion of those struggling with addiction. 

Why Substance Use Becomes Addiction

There are several reasons why someone may develop an addiction. Understanding the risk factors can help someone determine if their substance use is at an acceptable level, or has veered into addiction. However, people don't develop addictions because they are bad people or have some moral failing. Addiction is not a punishment. It's a biological and psychological response to an addictive chemical. Nobody deserves an addiction and everyone is worthy of help to recover from it, regardless of who they are. 

Substances are inherently addictive because of the chemicals they are made from. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, methamphetamines, and others are all chemicals that alter the brain. Simply using these substances alone can cause an addiction. However, it's not the only reason why substance use becomes addiction.

How Substance Use Becomes Addiction: Self-Medicating

Perhaps the biggest reason why people develop addictions is a response to pain, stress, and trauma. If someone is struggling with stress at work, they may feel that they can only find relief by using a substance. Others may be pressured to succeed, so they feel as though they need to take performance-enhancing substances to keep up and stay focused. Often, substances are used to deal with negative thoughts and feelings as a form of self-medicating. This is when someone uses a substance without the oversight of a doctor to treat a symptom, real or perceived. 

Self-medicating is most commonly used by those struggling with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety disorders or depression. Using substances to deal with these problems is tempting, due to the ease with which some substances can be acquired. Some may feel as though they cannot afford professional treatment, and will turn to what they perceive is the cheapest alternative. 

How Substance Use Becomes Addiction: Peer Pressure

Another reason why substance use becomes addiction is because of peer pressure. Young teens are susceptible to peer pressure to try new things, which can include substances. However, it's not just teenagers who deal with peer pressure. Adults, even older adults, can also be peer pressured into substance use. It goes back to the societal idea that someone has to engage in substance use to have a good time. It's not uncommon for people to be taken to bars and encouraged to drink to ‘loosen up’. Peer pressure is powerful, and it can be difficult to resist without the right coping skills.

Other Ways Substance Use Becomes Addiction

Other reasons behind addiction are beyond someone's control. People don't choose their genetics or the environments they are born into, but it plays a large role in addiction rates. Family history is a huge factor in addiction. People who have grandparents, parents, siblings, and other direct family members that engage in substance use are more likely to do so themselves. How someone develops mentally also matters, as well as the education they receive. Not many people are taught how to cope with difficulties in a healthy way. Mental health education is also very lacking in many parts of the country. These factors make it more likely for someone to develop an addiction compared to others. 

Those who take certain prescription drugs for a medical condition are also at risk for addiction. Opioids are commonly prescribed as painkillers and are highly addictive. Other examples include benzodiazepines used to treat anxiety disorders and stimulants used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those who need these drugs must work closely with their doctors to prevent an addiction from forming. It's especially problematic for those living with chronic issues who need increasing dosages as their condition worsens.

People who engage in substance use should be aware of their risk factors and why they are using the substance. Are they currently going through a rough time and feel as though they need a drink of alcohol to relax each night or else they can't sleep? Have their parents used tobacco, too, as a way to regulate stress? Do they feel that they have to take drugs or they will fail in school? 

All of these are points in time when someone's substance use becomes addiction. If someone is struggling with their mental health or is experiencing difficulties in life, it's important to get help. Not just because it could result in addiction, but because professionals exist to help someone cope with their difficulties. 

The Signs of When Substance Use Becomes Addiction

There are several common signs one can look out for to tell when casual substance use becomes an addiction. Addiction affects everyone on a behavioral, physical, and psychological level. Knowing what to be aware of can help someone tell when they or another may be struggling with an addiction.

The Behavioral Symptoms of Addiction

Many behavioral changes happen when substance use becomes addiction. They not only have an impact on someone's relationship with others but also on society in general. 

Secrecy and Denial: This is when someone hides or dismisses their addiction through deflection, denial, deception, and dishonesty. They may vanish for hours at a time without telling someone where they are going or explaining where they have been. Some may suddenly isolate themselves and become defensive when confronted about their substance use. They may start keeping secrets and hide text messages and phone calls from other people. 

This also includes hiding and concealing paraphernalia related to substance use. Examples include empty alcohol bottles, smoking pipes, and pill bottles. There are cases where someone may begin to lie about their activities and company to their loved ones. This happens for two reasons. One is to convince themselves that they don't have a problem through denial. The other is to prevent feelings of shame from their inability to control their substance use.

Loss of Control: When someone experiences a loss of control, it means just that. They can no longer regulate their substance use and it becomes the top priority in their life. A person who is normally punctual and responsible may suddenly start missing obligations. Money set aside for bills and important purchases is instead used to buy more substances. They may stop participating in hobbies or other interests, instead spending their time engaging in substance use.  Some people may even stop caring for their physical health, wearing dirty clothing, or not bathing. Their whole world becomes their substance use with little room for anything else.

Disregarding Harm Caused: Addiction is difficult because it doesn't just harm the person engaged in it; it also harms the people around them. When someone is caught in an addiction, they don't see what it's doing to their loved ones. For example, a parent takes money set aside for groceries and buys substances. Now there is nothing left to buy food, which leaves their dependents hungry. Someone struggling with addiction may miss important events in other people's lives, such as weddings, graduations, and holidays. Substance use can also cause physical harm and even death to others. An example of such is when someone drives under the influence and hits another car or a pedestrian. 

Experiencing Trouble With the Law: People who struggle with addiction can have their behavior change in such an extreme way that they may begin to get into legal difficulties. The all-encompassing want and need to satisfy their addiction may drive someone to find alternative means to fund it. This can sometimes turn into theft and fraud in desperation to satisfy their craving.

Those who are under the influence lose their inhibitions and may engage in dangerous behavior, such as driving under the influence or being intoxicated in public. In extreme cases, substance use can exacerbate instances of assault and domestic violence. Some substances are illegal or heavily regulated and can carry jail sentences if caught possessing them. Having constant trouble with the law or willfully breaking laws to obtain substances or remain intoxicated is a serious sign of addiction. 

When substance use becomes addiction, it can seem like a sudden change to others. However, this change can be subtle at first, as it can be difficult to notice until it starts affecting others around them. Those who do not have a support network, such as family or close friends, tend to have their addiction noticed when they begin to have legal troubles.

That is why it is so important for everyone to surround themselves with people who love and care for them. Sometimes a person can be convinced to seek treatment before an addiction worsens. Noticing any of the above behavioral changes is a clear sign of addiction, and the person or loved one involved should seek help as soon as possible.

The Physical Symptoms of Addiction

When substance use becomes addiction, it can also cause physical changes in a person's body. This is because substances at their core are chemicals. Our bodies rely on a delicate balance of chemical exchanges in our brains. When these chemicals become disrupted or changed, they can drastically affect the health and function of the body. It can cause physical changes to the nerve cells (neurons) in the brain, which in turn causes a cascade effect on the rest of the body. Substances can cause a wide range of physical signs, all of which can vary depending on the type of substance being used.

Some general physical signs of addiction are:

  • Sudden and rapid weight loss or gain
  • Unusual body odors or smells 
  • Bloodshot or sunken eyes
  • Pupils being small or enlarged 
  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • Loss or degradation of physical coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Looking generally unwell or disheveled 
  • Small marks (such as from a needle) or festering sores 

One way to know when an individual's substance use becomes addiction is the presence of withdrawal symptoms. These are physical and psychological symptoms experienced in the absence of a substance. This is because the brain becomes changed after repeated exposure to a substance. It comes to crave the substance because it believes it needs it to function. When it does not get the substance, it causes withdrawal symptoms. Some withdrawal symptoms can be serious or life-threatening, which is why detox should always be supervised. 

Examples of withdrawal symptoms are: 

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations and confusion
  • Difficulties concentrating and irritability 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Fever and headaches
  • Trembling, shaking, and jumpiness

The Psychological Symptoms of Addiction

Addiction also affects us psychologically in two ways. One way is how a substance can cause someone to believe that they need it to function, known as psychological dependence. Breaking a psychological dependence can be difficult, especially if someone strongly believes that they need their substance to function or interact with others. 

An example of such thinking is someone who struggles with negative emotions as a result of trauma. They don't want to think about the trauma they have gone through, so they decide to numb their feelings through the use of substances. If they don't have to think about it, then it doesn't exist to them. This can cause feelings of panic if they don't have access to their substance of choice. Others may feel as though they are uninteresting and need the use of substances to improve their social lives. If someone says that they need a substance, even if they know it's bad for them, it's dependence. 

The other way people are affected psychologically is through changes due to the disruption of their brain chemistry. Chemical transmitters (neurotransmitters) control how we feel and communicate important information throughout the brain. When this process is interrupted or changed, it can cause obvious physiological distress and changes. Common examples of such changes found in those struggling with addiction are:

  • Feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Changes in mood, attitude, and personality
  • Irritability and difficulty controlling angry outbursts
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Craving the substance of choice to the point of desperation 
  • Feelings of paranoia 
  • Lack of motivation
  • Panic when unable to engage in substance use
  • Lack of awareness and general inattentiveness 
  • Withdrawing emotionally from others 

Addiction treatment isn't just breaking the chemical addiction, but the psychological one too. It may be the most difficult aspect of addiction to treat because someone may believe that they need their substance of choice to live. Finding reasons and ways to live without the substance is an important part of recovery, offering freedom from the addiction. Treatment at Pathways Wellness Center is not only there to help someone recover, but to discover who they are as an individual and thrive. 

If Substance Use Becomes Addiction, Reach Out

Substance use can be a slippery slope that can slide into addiction without someone noticing until the signs are obvious. Even then, it can be easier to deny or deflect from the problem than face it head-on. Addiction treatment is not easy, but it is there to save lives. Everyone needs to read the signs and symptoms of addiction and understand the difficulties that come from it. Nobody deserves to live with addiction. The truth is that everyone deserves help. Luckily, help is within reach. The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem, and the next is to ask for help

Casual substance use is everywhere in the American media and life, especially regarding legal substances, such as nicotine and alcohol. The use of such is often encouraged or heavily normalized. The result is that sometimes it becomes hard to tell when substance use has turned into a substance use disorder (SUD) or even an addiction. If you or someone you love feels like their substance use is out of control, know there is hope. Regardless of who they are, everyone deserves compassionate and quality mental health care. Here at Pathways Wellness Center in Glendora, California, our clients find the support and treatment they need to recover. If you or a loved one is struggling, don't wait. Call (888) 771-0966 today. 

About the Author

Raul Haro
Raul Haro is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with sixteen years of experience working in both the inpatient and outpatient setting. As an LMFT, He has trained in trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR. Raul has furthered his training in the drug and alcohol field by obtaining a Masters in Drug and Alcohol Counseling through CCAPP. Raul has a background in nursing where he has been an LVN for over 25 years. Recently, he has returned to school to complete a degree in Registered Nursing. Future plans are for Raul are to eventually complete a degree as a Nurse Practitioner combining his therapy practice with his nursing skills.

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