Am I an Addict?

A Guide to Those Unsure of their Substance Habits

The American Medical Association defines addiction as a disease 1. It is an incredibly complex disease that consists of biological, psychological, social and environmental factors.

When one hears the words “addiction” or “addict” they tend to immediately think of alcohol and other drugs. And yes, millions of people all over the world are addicted to alcohol or other drugs; but one can become addicted to other things as well – such as food, gambling, sex, work, and even shopping or exercise 2.

If you or someone you care for are having trouble ceasing the use of drugs, alcohol, or specific behaviors despite the negative consequences as a result of them, it could mean that you or they are facing addiction.

Please know that you are not alone, that there is help and hope, and that life can get better.

Addiction Self Test

Do you take your substance of choice in larger amounts or for longer than you intended to?

Intended for Educational Use. This test is based on the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders established in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Though we have put effort to make this test as accurate as possible, it is no replacement for a mental health diagnosis by a licensed doctor.

The Physiology of Addiction

Your brain produces a neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that activates the “reward center” of your brain. Simply put, dopamine feels good!

When you successfully accomplish a difficult task, get through a grueling workout, or eat an incredibly tasty meal, your brain produces dopamine.

Dopamine is what produces those pleasurable feelings you get from these activities; it is the reward center of your brain lighting up. Biologically, this is necessary and productive. We desire those pleasurable feelings of reward, so we exercise, we eat good food, and we challenge ourselves at school and work. This keeps us motivated and active, which helps us to survive.

Alcohol, drugs, gambling, and shopping also produce dopamine, but at a much faster and higher rate. It provides instant gratification, and it feels really good (at first). And this is where the problems can begin. And no, it’s not because you lack willpower, or are weak and gluttonous – it is because the chemical pathways in your brain have changed.

What happens is, once you’ve started using drugs, alcohol, or a particular behavior (such as gambling or sex) to produce those feelings of pleasure, your brain needs increasingly more of that substance or behavior in order to produce those same pleasurable feelings. This needing more and more of something to get the same result is called tolerance.

The cognitive area of your brain is also affected, and now that cognitive area is going to tell you that drugs, alcohol, or other behavior is the only way to get those pleasurable feelings of reward and accomplishment.

This creates a craving. And this is important to understand – it’s not simply the glass of wine you’re craving, or the extra painkiller, or that dress you just passed by in a display window; it’s the feeling of pleasure and reward you’ll get from acquiring those things.

Addiction is biological and chemical. It is very intense, and your brain is telling you that it is a matter of survival that you ingest that substance or buy that dress 3.

The Psychology of Addiction

Why does one person get addicted to something, such as alcohol, while another person does not? That is a very good question, and one that doctors, psychologists, and addiction specialists are still trying to understand.

Again, addiction is complicated. There are many factors involved, and there is no perfect equation for becoming, or not becoming an addict.

While it is almost impossible to predict whether or not a person will become addicted to something, there are some psychological factors that can put someone more at risk.

Psychological risk factors include

A large number of people suffering from addiction issues also have mental disorders or a history of trauma or abuse.

Remember, it isn’t so much the drug or behavior that addicts are seeking, but rather the feelings those drugs or behaviors produce.

People don’t just use substances and behaviors to feel good, but also as a way to NOT feel bad.

A person with debilitating anxiety may find that a few beers before a party helps them to “loosen up”.

Someone with PTSD might discover that smoking a joint before bed helps to alleviate the nightmares they experience as a result of their trauma.

Someone with chronic depression may find that a shopping spree gives them a burst of energy and hopefulness.

These are not necessarily “bad” or dangerous behaviors if they happen once or twice, but when drinking beer, smoking pot, or shopping become necessary in order to socialize, sleep, or function – that is when patterns of behavior start becoming addictions.

It will also start to take more beer, more pot, or more shopping sprees to acquire those good feelings – or to quiet down the bad ones 1.

Social and Environmental Factors of Addiction

A person’s environmental and social surroundings can have a huge impact on whether or not they become addicted to substances or behaviors. And once again, it’s complicated. Here we will begin to discuss why the biology, psychology, and environmental and social factors all work together to create complex pathways towards (or away from) issues with addiction.

Family dynamics and history

The amount of supervision one grows up with, the level of communication one has with their family, and the psychological health of a particular family are all factors that affect a person’s predilection towards addiction.

Someone whose parents are divorced, or someone who has been sexually abused by a family member are more likely to use substances later on in life.

A person whose parents were active addicts are more likely to become addicts themselves (there is a genetic component to this as well).

Friends and Acquaintances

When you’re hanging around with a bunch of people who love to go to casinos, it’s pretty likely that you’ll gamble a fair amount as well.

We all want to fit in, to feel connected and have a sense of belonging. The people we choose to surround ourselves with will have an effect on our own behaviors and the habits we pick up as a result of those behaviors.

Culture and Religion

Some cultures find it unacceptable for women to drink, and this may sway women away from drinking. Or the opposite may occur, and a woman may drink in order to rebel against cultural norms, or to feel like an individual.

Some religions may frown against premarital sex, or homosexuality. This may lead someone to act out sexually, or to use drugs or alcohol as a way of avoiding feelings of shame about their own sexuality.

Social Media

This a fairly new one, but a big one. Teddy Roosevelt stated quite simply that “Comparison is the thief of joy”.

More evidence comes out every day that social media can play a significant part in one’s diminishing self-esteem and confidence.

Constant bombardment of the seemingly “perfect” lives of other people can lead to an already socially isolated person feeling even more socially isolated and inept. Which can lead to seeking relief from those feelings through the use of alcohol, drugs, or risky behaviors – which can lead to addiction to those coping mechanisms.

Everyone grows up and lives in different environments. And everyone is affected differently by those environments. Someone who grew up in a house full of cigarette smoke may grow up naturally inclined to smoke cigarettes themselves, or they may grow up detesting the smell of cigarettes so much that they never smoke a single one.

This is why it’s so important to approach addiction treatment with the intention of looking at it from many different angles and perspectives including biological and psychological, as well as from an environmental and social standpoint 4.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

Not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic, and not everyone who regularly visits casinos becomes addicted to gambling.

In fact, many people overindulge in alcohol quite often and still don’t become addicted. There are people who have sex every single day of the week who aren’t sex addicts.

The most important question you must ask yourself if you think you might have an addiction is…

“Is this interfering with my everyday life?”

Addiction is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. You may need hard alcohol to get the same buzz you used to get after a couple of beers. Your shopping habits may become more frequent and costly, or your gambling debts might start getting harder to pay off.

Here are some of the outward signs that a person may be losing control of their habits, and spiraling into addiction.

Signs of addiction include:

Psychological Symptoms

There are psychological symptoms that might start to manifest when someone is struggling with addiction as well:

The inability to stop or slow down

Someone who gambles may force themselves to stay home from the casino, but later find themselves gambling online. A person who drinks might promise themselves “I will only have 2 beers tonight”, and the next thing they know they’ve finished a 6 pack. Nicotine is an especially difficult addiction to overcome, and some smokers only manage to “quit” with the help of nicotine patches or e-cigarettes. It is simply too painful, or too difficult to stop.

Continuing to use substances or partake in behaviors despite issues with health

A smoker may continue to smoke despite having a chronic cough and difficulty breathing. A drinker may continue to drink immediately after vomiting, or despite experiencing hangovers with increasing frequency. When someone is addicted to something, the need for the substance or behavior always outweighs the negative consequences, no matter how detrimental or uncomfortable they become.

Risky Behavior

People in active addiction will start taking risks that are irrational and dangerous. They may start driving under the influence, stealing money for drugs, or taking out loans they won’t be able to pay back in order to gamble. People abusing substances are especially vulnerable to putting themselves at risk because their cognitive functioning and judgement are impaired. They may drive under the influence, or put themselves in dangerous situations with dangerous people 5.

Physical Symptoms of Addiction

When it comes to drugs and alcohol a person may go years without experiencing notable physical symptoms, or they may start to occur quite soon after they begin abusing a substance.

Withdrawal

When someone suddenly ceases taking a drug, or drinking alcohol (after having it their system for an extended period of time) they may suffer from headaches, shakiness, dizziness, profuse sweating, constipation, diarrhea, or insomnia. In many cases withdrawal can be extremely dangerous, causing seizures, strokes, and even death. If you or someone you care for is suffering from serious withdrawal symptoms, please seek out medical assistance right away.

Disease or Permanent Damage

Smoking can cause lung damage, and even lung cancer. People who drink heavily for many years can suffer cirrhosis, or liver damage. In fact, many medications can cause liver damage. People who use needles to inject their drug of choice may start having problems with their veins or arteries, or contact a disease from a used needle.

Changes in Appearance

Addiction can cause a person to stop caring for their appearance or hygiene. They may lack the energy to wash their clothes, bathe regularly, or put any effort into their hair or nails (assuming this is something they used to do), or they may simply not care anymore. An addict might appear disheveled or unkept. Active addiction takes up a lot of time and energy; physical appearance starts to slip down the list of priorities.

Treatment for Addiction

There is no cure for addiction. Addiction is a chronic disease that progresses whether or not a person is abusing a substance or participating in their behavioral addiction. This is why relapses can be dangerous and scary; a person can go years without drinking a single drink – but once they start drinking again, it’s as if they never stopped. They will crave more alcohol as soon as that first drink hits their system.

There is treatment however, and there is hope. Millions of people manage their addictions every single day, and live happy, fulfilling lives full of joy, sorrow, and all the emotions in between. And they never need to gamble away their money, or drink a bunch of beer to deal with the feelings that living life is sure to produce.

Treatment and Recovery

Treatment and Recovery are two different things.

Treatment

Treatment is about ceasing the use of the substance or behavior that one is addicted to. For someone addicted to alcohol or drugs, this may mean rehab or other medical intervention. Quitting “cold turkey” can be incredibly dangerous, and for a lot of people downright impossible.

Rehabilitation centers will support the addict with any necessary medication and constant supervision in order to assure that they safely come off the substance. Counselors and doctors will be available for support. Most rehabs introduce addicts to some sort of program, such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) before they go home, so that they can begin the path of Recovery.

Changes in Appearance

Recovery is the lifelong work that begins after treatment. Remember, addiction is chronic and progressive. Maintenance is required in order to remain free of the substance or behavior that turned into an addiction.
A person never intends to get addicted; what they intended to do was to feel better about life. Now that the substance or behavior is no longer available, a recovering addict needs to continually be working on other ways to feel peaceful and whole – without the use of substances or harmful behaviors.

Hope and Recovery

There is a saying in AA that alcohol is “Cunning, baffling, and powerful”, and that pretty much sums up addiction in any form. Why would one continue doing this dangerous and possibly deadly thing? It’s confusing, heartbreaking, and a torment to addicts and everyone who loves them.

It can get better though. If you are suffering right now, you don’t have to any longer.

There are considerable resources for people facing addiction, and the scientific and psychological understanding of addiction improves with each passing year.

There is Hope. There is recovery. There is Freedom from addiction.

Resources

  1. Lautieri, A., B.A. (2021, March 18). Drug Addiction and Abuse: Is it Disease or a Choice? (S. Thomas MD, Ed.). Retrieved from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/is-drug-addiction-a-disease
  2. Tyler, M. (2018, January 12). Recognizing an Addiction Problem (T. J. Legg Ph.D., CRNP, Ed.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/addiction/recognizing-addiction
  3. Bialik, M., & Bowie, J. R. (2021, February 9). Angry young man finds sobriety. Retrieved from https://www.bialikbreakdown.com/listen-podcasts/angry-young-man-finds-sobriety
  4. Mennis, J., Stahler, G. J., & Mason, M. J. (2016). Risky Substance Use Environments and Addiction: A New Frontier for Environmental Justice Research. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(6), 607. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13060607
  5. Medical News Today. (2018, October 26). Addiction: Symptoms, effects, and what to look for. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323459
  6. NIDA. 2020, July 13. Drug Misuse and Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-misuse-addiction on 2021, March 29
  7. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, October 26). Drug addiction (substance use disorder). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/symptoms-causes/syc-20365112
  8. Branch M. N. (2011). Drug addiction. Is it a disease or is it based on choice? A review of Gene Heyman’s Addiction: A disorder of choice. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 95(2), 263–267. https://doi.org/10.1901/jeab.2011.95-263
  9. Riaz, U., & Riaz, S. A. (n.d.). Addiction & Addictive Disorders. Retrieved March 29, 2021, from https://www.heraldopenaccess.us/journals/journal-of-addiction-addictive-disorders
  10. Partnership Staff. (2020, July 24). Is Addiction a Disease? Retrieved from https://drugfree.org/article/is-addiction-a-disease/