Medically Reviewed By: Ashley Levin
People begin using alcohol or drugs for a variety of reasons. It may start as a way to feel good, relieve stress, improve performance, or peer pressure. Repeated use causes changes to occur in the brain. These changes can last long after the immediate effects of the substance wear off. Over time, they build a tolerance to the substance.
Because of this, they need larger amounts to feel the same effects. Someone may ask themselves, “Am I addicted?” when their substance use starts to interfere with their day-to-day ability to function.
What is Addiction?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines a substance use disorder (SUD) as a complex mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior. Consequently, this leads to the inability to control their use of substances, despite harmful consequences.
These addictive substances include tobacco, alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drugs, for example. The most severe SUDs are frequently referred to as addictions. People use drugs and alcohol recreationally to get “high”.
In fact, people in active addiction use drugs or alcohol to feel normal, numb their pain, or to escape their problems. They can also use drugs and alcohol to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is not a weakness or moral failing. No one chooses addiction.
All addictive drugs act on the brain by activating certain reward and pleasure pathways, similar to pleasure when we eat certain foods like sugar, fat, and salt. There is no way to predict who will develop an addiction. There are, however, risk factors that make some individuals predisposed to addiction.
- Genes: It is estimated that genes are responsible for about half the risk of developing an addiction.
- Physiological factors: Individual hormonal response to stress and variations in how the body metabolizes substances.
- Gender: Males are more likely to develop substance use disorders but females are more prone to the effects of substances like alcohol.
- Personality factors: Both sensation-seeking and impulsivity personality traits have been linked to addictive behaviors.
- Trauma and abuse: Early exposure to trauma and abuse can affect a person’s coping ability and stress management. This can lead to substance use disorders.
- Mental health factors: Co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD can increase the risk of addiction.
- Family factors: Troubled family relationships or having a close family member with a substance use disorder adds to one’s risk.
- Accessibility: Easy availability of drugs and alcohol in the home, school, work, or community leads to repeated use, and as a result, can lead to addiction.
- Peer group: People are heavily influenced by their peers and may easily adopt behaviors.
- Employment status: Being employed provides emotional and financial stability, lessening the addiction risk.
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Warning Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
Signs and symptoms of addiction can range from moderate to severe. However, all substance use disorders should be treated. Don’t wait until the problem gets worse.
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of being addicted to drugs or alcohol include:
- Increased tolerance
- Drug or alcohol cravings
- Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or stop use
- Frequently failing to meet obligations due to substance use
- Relationship problems as a result of substance use
- Continuing to use despite medical problems as a result of using the substance
- Using substances at inappropriate times and places
- Hiding and lying about substance use
- Work, school, or financial difficulties
- Using the substance to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
- Spending a great deal of time trying to obtain, use, and recover from the substance
When it comes to addiction, it may be difficult for someone to admit when they have a problem. Often, it is family and friends who start to see there is a problem before the addicted person does. When substance use begins to have negative effects on someone’s life, it is important to objectively review the facts that indicate a potential addiction. The first step toward recovery is admitting there is a problem. Until then, recovery is unlikely.
The truth is, the earlier addiction treatment begins, the easier it is to go through. Sometimes, people feel they must hit “rock bottom” before they seek addiction treatment. As a result, they may spend years struggling alone before finally hitting their lowest point. It is often during this painful time that people finally reach out for help. Many people are eventually forced into treatment due to the adverse consequences of their addiction.
When people admit they have a problem, and have unsuccessfully tried to quit on their own, it is time to enter a rehab program. This is especially true with substances like heroin and opiates that pose a serious risk of overdose and death. Getting professional addiction treatment helps people take back control of their lives. So, if someone is wondering if they need drug or alcohol rehab, they probably do.
When there is a physical dependence on drugs or alcohol it is highly advisable to get professional help. Withdrawal symptoms during detox from some substances can be very uncomfortable or even life-threatening. A drug and alcohol rehab can help manage withdrawal symptoms, and provide support along with evidence-based addiction therapies. Equally important, addiction specialists design a personalized treatment plan based on each client’s needs.