The Definitive Guide to Identifying Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is often characterized by secrecy and isolation, making the signs and symptoms of addiction difficult to recognize. Understanding the chronic, relapsing, and uncontrollable nature of addiction can help make the symptoms more comprehensible for someone who is trying to determine if their loved one is addicted to drugs.

A person struggling with a drug addiction is likely exhibiting physical, behavioral, and emotional symptoms that are consistent with drug use.

Changes in mental health, an inability to stop using drugs, and the experience of negative consequences are just a few signs that someone probably has an addiction. If you have identified addiction in a loved one, there are things you can do to help. Ultimately, they are responsible for their own drug use and must decide to stop on their own. But you can provide support and resources to help get them on their recovery journey.

Understanding Addiction

Understanding addiction can help you identify it.
Addiction, as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, is a chronic disease of the brain in which individuals pathologically pursue substance use or behaviors for a sense of reward or relief.

People who have an addiction cannot control their impulses and cravings to engage in their addictive behavior of choice.

Additionally, people struggling with an addiction are often unable to fully recognize the significance of their drug-using behaviors and the negative impacts it has on their lives and interpersonal relationships.

Addiction will not go away on its own. It requires treatment or participation in recovery programs to be effectively addressed and restore mental and physical health in the individual.

Identifying Drug Addiction

Drug addiction can be particularly challenging to identify because it manifests itself in many different ways. Some people addicted to drugs can function fairly normally for a significant period before experiencing negative consequences. Other people, however, may exhibit physical and behavioral symptoms whose presence are unexplainable by any other current life events.

Common signs of drug addiction include:

  • An inability to stop using a drug, even when you want to
  • Decreased participation in social events or personal commitments
  • Neglecting personal relationships or experiencing interpersonal problems
  • Engaging in risky behaviors of drug use
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop using
  • Encountering negative consequences at school, work, or in your personal and family life.
  • Continuing drug use despite these consequences
  • Denial that a problem exists
  • Increased secrecy and lying about drug use
  • Physical changes, such as weight loss, bloodshot eyes, and changes to your hair or skin.
  • Mental health issues like anxiety and depression
  • Financial and legal problems
  • Drug paraphernalia

Someone with a drug addiction likely exhibits behavioral, physical, and emotional symptoms that indicate they have a drug problem. If someone you know is showing any combination of the above symptoms, they may have a drug addiction.

Impacts of Drug Use

If you are trying to determine if someone you know is addicted to drugs, consider if there have been any fundamental changes in their day-to-day functioning.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that long-term drug use can cause changes to the brain that impact functioning in the following areas:

  • Learning
  • Decision-making
  • Judgment
  • Stress levels
  • Memory
  • Behavior

Extended drug use also causes people to experience less pleasure from once enjoyable activities, such as eating food, having sex, and participating in social events. Someone with an addiction will attempt to achieve the same levels of pleasure by consuming more of their drug of choice. Although this cycle of drug use produces negative consequences, they will continue to use drugs anyway.

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When Drug Use May Not Be a Problem

Excessive drug use or use that is causing negative consequences is a problem, but not all drug use is a cause for concern. There is a difference between substance use and addiction. Understanding the difference can help you determine what interventions, if any, need to happen.

Any amount of drug use can be alarming to some, as it has the potential to control and influence behavior. Certain drugs, like alcohol, can be consumed in moderation to improve mood or enhance a social situation without it being considered a problem.

If someone constantly consumes excessive amounts of alcohol just to get through their day, however, they may have an alcohol abuse problem.

Substance use, explains the Canadian Mental Health Association, can be considered along a continuum that ranges from beneficial to harmful use. It can be beneficial to take medication to aid in pain relief, and you may experience limited to no side effects. Toward the middle of the spectrum, you can have a fun night out having drinks with your friends but may struggle through a hangover the next day. At the more serious end of the spectrum, you may have become dependent on a specific drug that you can no longer function properly without.

If you can consume a substance occasionally, for fun or medical reasons, without experiencing cravings or withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the drug, then your drug use is likely not a problem. If your use has progressed beyond your control, and you experience mental and physical side effects when you stop using, you may have developed an addiction that requires professional assistance.

After You Recognize a Problem

After you recognize that a loved one is struggling with a drug addiction, there are things you can do to encourage them to get help. NIDA explains that drug abuse is a treatable and manageable disease. It cannot be cured, but like most chronic diseases, addiction responds positively to effective treatment and can allow individuals to resume healthy and productive lives.

If you are ready to talk to your friend or loved one about your concerns for them, here are some tips for speaking about their drug use.

  • Remain open-minded and nonjudgmental.
  • Have the conversation when everyone is sober.
  • Select a safe and private space to have the discussion.
  • Don’t criticize or blame your loved one for their drug use.
  • Speak less, and listen more.
  • Be prepared to have the conversation more than once.

In addition to approaching the conversation with the above tips in mind, you may want to come prepared with a few resources for your friend. Suggesting your friend consult their health care provider is a great place to start the recovery process. Doctors can conduct general health checkups and make referrals to appropriate treatment resources.