by Laura Geftman, LCSW
In addiction, they say the first step is admitting you have a problem. How can you admit it if you don’t know what it really looks like. It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of addiction to be know when you’ve had too much or you experiencing a bigger issue.
What is addiction?
These days it’s pretty common to hear someone say they’re addicted to avocados, binge watching TV, travel, makeup, working out, tattoos… It’s even become common practice to add “-aholic” to thing you claim to be addicted to like “shoeaholic” or “workaholic.” Really our attitudes about being compelled to do or use things too frequently has become all “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.” All jokes aside, there’s a thin line between over use and addiction.
Addiction is a crippling disease that involves what you’re doing or using taking over your life.
In 1956, the American Medical Association first recognized what we now call “addiction,” “substance abuse,” “chemical dependency,” and “substance use disorder.” While the terminology has changed, the chronic brain disease continues to cause compulsive activity despite health, social and legal consequences. The disease is caused by a variety of factors and lead to long-term negative consequences that can be deadly.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine has described addiction as “a primary chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” It is all too common to think that addiction is only about a substance you can’t stop using. The brain disease causes those suffering from it to a need toward compulsory behavior or use of a substance.
6 Stages of Addiction
Yes, you read that right- there are six stages of addiction. It’s a bit different than what your high school health teacher probably taught you. They likely said that if you tried drugs just once, you’d get addicted. That’s pretty simplified. More of a scare tactic but not entirely wrong.
Addiction can be broken down to six stages. It affects the brain’s reward center controlling pleasure, memory and motivation, and doesn’t just pop up one day. Like other chronic illnesses, addiction occurs over a series of stages that turn into a habit or cycle.
Initial Use Whether you give into peer pressure or are prescribed an addictive medication by a doctor, there are many situations that can lead to first use of substances. Regardless alcohol and drugs can present in your life in many ways, and not everyone gets addicted to the substances used. For initial use to lead to addiction, there are other risk factors involved including family history of substance abuse, previous abuse or neglect, mental health disorders, chaotic home environment, and permissive peer groups.
Abuse The next stage is abuse. This may seems like a jump. Really if we break it down, it’s not. Abuse is using a substance on a recurring basis with higher doses that is having a harmful impact on daily living. So yes, any regular use of alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, etc…with an additional drink, hit or bump that has you oversleeping and gives you a hangover is considered abuse. This applies to all substances- legal or illegal, OTC or prescription.
Tolerance In this stage, it’s evident that the brain has changed in response to the drug. As result of persistent use, the brain no longer craves the original doses. The brain wants to recapture the original result but requires more than the original dose to achieve it. It’s not about the social aspects of using but chasing the euphoric response you’d previously experienced, and ignoring the detrimental physical responses as a deterrent. (source).
Dependence This stage is well beyond the previous. With dependence the brain and body can only function with use of the substance. Therefore without the drug, the person addicted to it will have physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal. This develops with the brain has fully adapted to the presence of the drug. Therefore the use will need to continue use to avoid withdrawal. (source). Dependence also doesn’t just effect the reward center of the brain but also the thalamus and brain stem. The main function of the thalamus is to communicate motor and sensory signals in the brain, and the brain stem communicates with the rest of the body. In dependence, the messaging of these parts of the brain are hindered or destroyed. (source).
Addiction Without an ability to face life without alcohol or drugs, lack of control over your use, and detrimental consequences to your career, relationships, and other aspects of your life, the presence of addiction- now called substance use disorder- is evident. The disorder is much more than the symptoms as the chronic disease has taken over all aspects of your life. Use has changed your motivation, movement, emotion, judgement, and memory. All that seems to matter is obtaining and using your substance of choice.
Relapse It’s important to keep in mind that chronic conditions over time can be managed. However there is always potential for relapse. In fact, relapse is a part of the disease and usually indicates how best to readjust treatment needs. Further understanding of how to interrupt the cycle of addiction is very helpful in recognizing the signs and symptoms that relapse maybe imminent.
20 Signs and Symptoms You’re Addicted
We all have our our story, and each individual experiences addiction a bit differently. But there are commonalities in what addiction does to your life. The things you feel and experiences you had that are fueled by addiction generally lead to a few of the following signs and symptoms:
- You continue to crave the use of a substance.
- You keep taking a prescription drug after it’s no longer needed for a health problem.
- You develop a physical dependence and feel shaky, sick or depressed when the drug wears off.
- You are having difficulty getting along with others. People in your life have expressed concern about you.
- You spend a lot of time thinking about, looking for, and around that which feeds the behavior or use.
- Your sleeping and eating habits have changed.
- You have a whole new group of friends in your life that encourage the problematic behavior or use.
- You’re experiencing a lack of motivation, irritability, and agitation.
- You take engage in risky behavior like driving under the influence or unprotected sex.
- You aren’t keeping up on your personal hygiene. Showering, brushing your teeth or hair- you no longer do it often.
- You hide your behavior or substance use and the effect it’s having on your life from others.
- You need and take more and more of a substance to get the same effect.
- You know and use every excuse possible to defend and justify your behavior or use.
- You can’t stop yourself form continuing the behavior or use even when faced with detrimental consequences.
- You can’t give yourself limits. Plans to only do or use “so much” never work.
- Your behavior or use has led to a lack of interest in people, places and things you used to like.
- Your normal daily activities aren’t getting done like working, cleaning or cooking.
- You have resorted to borrowing or stealing money to support your habit.
- Your appearance has changed. You may have lost or gained weight. You experience shakes or tremors. You are irritable and argumentative.
- You go to multiple doctors to prescribe additional prescriptions for the same issue.
Seeing a Mental Health Professional
If you become concerned addiction, it’s best to seek the support of a mental health professional- such as a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. When you see someone professionally trained in mental health care, they can help you understand the difficulties you’re experiencing.
Sure just the thought of seeking mental healthcare can create more cravings. You may think they will make you talk about your past. Or that you won’t connect with them to feel comfortable to talk about anything. Maybe you’re afraid to cry in front of anyone let alone a stranger. Worse- you think they’ll put you in a hospital, rehab or institution.
Please know I don’t bring this up to elicit fear but to say- those who work in the mental health field are trained to work with you at your own pace. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Ever. The idea is to create a safe space for you to feel comfortable to connect with someone who can help you understand your symptoms and learn to manage them. Therapist are legally bound to uphold privacy and confidentiality. That means they can only repeat what you’ve said to them if they are concerned about your safety or the safety of others. Anything else you tell a therapist, they cannot repeat to anyone else without your consent. You literally have to sign paperwork stating they can talk to others about what you’ve shared with them.
Keep in mind- Untreated substance abuse disorders can be harmful to your health and even fatal. If you think you or your loved one may have a substance use disorder or addiction, see a doctor or therapist to determine the best course of treatment.
When to seek emergency treatment
Here are the signs and symptoms would warrant a trip to the emergency room immediately:
- changes in consciousness
- trouble breathing
- seizures or convulsions
- signs of a possible heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure
- any other troublesome physical or psychological reaction to use of the drug
If anything listed is cause for concern, call 911 or go to your local emergency room immediately.
About Laura Geftman, LCSW
Laura Geftman, LCSW is the Founder of The Calm, Cool & Collected and a practicing therapist. Beyond all things cannabis and mental health, Laura is passionate about developing greater understanding for kindness and acceptance. In her free time, Laura can be found on her yoga mat, in a kayak or singing karaoke.