How Can You Tell If Someone Has an Addiction?

Posted by Matt Johnston, Contributing Writer, on Sep 09, 2021

How Can You Tell If Someone Has an Addiction?

One more drink. Another incident. A late night of browsing. Broken resolutions. How can you tell if someone has just made some poor choices or is struggling with addiction? If someone you know has an addiction, how can you help?

Defining Addiction

Addiction is a broad and often “loaded” word that can apply to many different situations. Its realities are usually complex and rarely have just one cause. As a general definition, addiction may be present when someone cannot regulate their dependence on, use of, or participation in a substance or activity.

Common Types of Addiction

What types of substances or activities are usually associated with addiction? Some common types of substance or behavioral addiction may include

  • Alcohol
  • Pornography
  • Prescription drugs
  • Illicit drugs
  • Gambling
  • Food
  • Shopping
  • Other high-risk behaviors

Common Signs of Addiction

Addiction and its effects can show up in countless ways, depending on the individual and the circumstances. However, some common signs to watch for include

  • Preoccupation (when a person is always thinking about the substance or behavior in question)
  • Failure to stop using the substance or engaging in the activity despite regular attempts and incentives/negative consequences
  • Withdrawal symptoms when usage is stopped, including insomnia, anxiety, agitation nausea/vomiting, hot and cold flashes, and loss of appetite, among others (the symptoms, severity, and timing all depend on the substance in question).
  • Disregard for negative consequences
  • Tolerance (when a person no longer responds to the substance or behavior the way they did at first, which requires them to have/do more of it to feel the same effects)
  • Disruption of Responsibilities (within the family, at work, or at school)

If the signs of an addiction are present, how can a person break that addiction? And what can a loved one do to help?

The Stages of Addiction and Behavior Change

Understanding the cycle of behavior change can help to better understand how someone can quit an addiction. People go through various stages—similar to progressing through the stages of grief—on the way to quitting addictive behavior.

While the six stages of behavior change are often experienced sequentially, a person can jump around out of order or be in multiple stages a time. Loved ones can offer different types of support in each stage.

Precontemplation

In this stage, a person doesn’t realize a problem exists. Signs of this stage will include

  • a refusal to discuss the problem
  • a disregard for accountability, or
  • resistance to learning about the behavior.

Often, the best thing to do when you first notice concerning patterns is not to force action, but rather communicate acceptance (which is not the same as approval) and a lack of judgement relating to these behaviors.

This posture helps to build trust so that when the time is right to engage in more difficult conversation, that person may be less defensive and more receptive.

Contemplation

This stage is marked by readiness to engage the reality that a problem exists. It is likely seen as interest in learning about the behavior rather than changing it. The person may be looking for a guaranteed cure or waiting for the “right time” to stop. Sure, change sounds nice, but there is little to no action initiated on their part.

Your best course of action as a friend or group leader at this stage is to gently increase motivation for change by reporting back ways they’ve behaved while intoxicated (use of video might be useful here) or mirror back things they’ve said to justify behavior. Hopefully this can increase emotional buy-in to the importance of altering their behavior.

You’ll want to

  • listen
  • wait for requests for information
  • calmly report observations, personal experiences, and factual information, and
  • avoid offering statements that give false hope of a quick fix.

Your aim should be to act with empathy, support, and a genuine sense of concern.

Preparation

In this stage, the person will be ready to quit but still might not have a clear sense of how. Here, good first steps might be to help set a target date to quit, to provide support for going public with the addiction, and to encourage seeking the help of a support, specialized recovery group and/or professional addiction recovery resources.

Action

Once at this stage, the person is actively working toward changed behavior and suppressing the urge to continue the addiction. They will likely find success through

  • replacing destructive behaviors with new ones like exercise, hobbies, education
  • learning about their triggers and planning appropriate responses
  • eliminating temptations or changing their environment, which may include removing certain items from their home, installing safeguards, cancelling credit cards, and more.

You can help a loved one in this stage by embodying the “you are not alone” sentiment. Work with them to make an action plan, using practical steps they have already decided on. This action plan will answer key questions about what areas, when, and how they want someone to support them as they make this jump.

Maintenance

Reaching this stage means the person appears to have a good handle on their addiction and is ready to replace (or has already replaced) addictive behaviors with healthy lifestyle choices. A loved one should offer encouragement and support as ways to affirm their decisions and celebrate progress. However, this stage can be the hardest in which to remain supportive because it appears the addiction is in the past.

Relapse

Unfortunately, this is also a stage of the addiction cycle. Relapse often occurs when the withdrawal symptoms become too overwhelming, or the new normal just doesn’t seem sustainable. In this stage, the person succumbs to the compulsion to seek out the substance of choice to reclaim what they feel is a normal emotional and physical state. Ideally, they are able to re-engage the change process with the Precontemplation stage.

These are just a few aspects of the multi-faceted reality of addiction. This article is in no way meant to be exhaustive or universal in its approach. If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction, please do not hesitate to seek help in how to best support them and pursue recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, we want to help. Visit our Care page, or find an extensive list of targeted recovery resources, here

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