Signs of Addiction

Dealing with addiction is no easy feat. Addiction affects not only the person struggling with it, but all those around them. Addiction is so prevalent that it is likely to affect most people’s lives in some way at some point. Even if they don’t experience it themselves, many people observe addictive behaviors in family members, friends, or coworkers. When this happens, it is vital to have compassion, empathy, and hope for the future of those involved.

What Is Addiction?

In order to identify signs of addiction and help someone struggling with it, you must first understand what addiction is. Addiction is a progressive and chronic illness that impairs a person’s ability to cease a behavior, or use of substance(s), despite the harmful effects it may have on the person. It is not a lack of willpower or a choice, but rather a mental—and often also physical—disorder. 

Addiction changes the way the brain functions by altering its structural pathways and how it sends, receives, and processes signals through neurotransmitters (the body’s messengers). This commonly impacts the pleasure and reward center of the brain, changes how someone experiences stressful feelings and emotions, and impairs their judgment and control.

While addiction comes in many forms, one of the most common that we treat is what is known as “chemical addiction” or a Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

[Addiction] is not a lack of willpower or a choice, but rather a mental—and often also physical—disorder.

Who Is At Risk For Addiction?

Anyone can develop a substance use disorder. No one person is above addiction or immune to the way a substance can take over a person’s life.

While there is no way to predict who will become addicted and who will not, there are factors that put certain individuals at a higher risk than others. A variety of genetic, biological, and environmental factors can all play a role in who may be more prone to substance use disorder. 

Genetics and Family History

Some individuals have a genetic predisposition to addiction, as struggles with substance use disorders may run in the family. If a person is exposed to drug and alcohol use early on in life, or is born to a parent who used substances throughout pregnancy, their odds of developing a substance use disorder are greatly increased. 


For a child, lack of stability and supervision in the home can put them at a higher risk of developing an addiction. While addiction can appear in any age group, teens are highly susceptible as they are more likely to experience and succumb to peer pressure and engage in risky behavior. The likelihood of experimentation leading to addiction is higher due to the simple fact that their brains are still malleable and going through critical developmental stages. 

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Physical and Mental Health Problems

Substance use disorders are not uncommon among individuals who struggle with their mental health or who have experienced trauma. They may look to drugs or alcohol for an escape from reality. 

Much like individuals trying to escape mental and emotional pain, some may be trying to numb physical pain within their body. People under a lot of stress may seek out substances to cope with stressors or to keep up with the growing demands in their work and/or personal lives. Substance use in these circumstances often evolves from occasional use to dependency.

Other Risk Factors

Statistically, men are more prone to substance use disorders than women. Certain ethnicities are also at higher risk. Additionally, there are some personality traits that have been observed as more inclined to addiction, such as those who are impulsive, or “novelty-/sensation-seeking” individuals. While some people can experiment with substances and not develop an addiction from single use, there is no way to know for sure how one person's body will respond to a particular substance. 

Substance use disorders have been shown to be more prominent in communities with a lower socioeconomic status; however, that does not mean people within other communities are not affected by substance use disorders as well. 

There is a misconception about addiction that stereotypes “addicts” as a particular type of person. But addiction can happen to anyone, for any number of reasons.

Environmental factors can play a role too. Both physical location and environment, such as who a person is surrounded by, their activities, and their daily lifestyle, can put someone at a higher risk of engaging in drug and alcohol abuse and potentially developing an addiction.

None of these factors guarantee whether someone will develop a substance use disorder. Similarly, people who seem to have “zero risk factors” for addiction are not guaranteed to avoid developing a substance use disorder. 

While those with a substance use disorder often report shared experiences, each person has their own journey as to how they arrived at their current place in life.

There is a misconception about addiction that stereotypes “addicts” as a particular type of person. But addiction can happen to anyone, for any number of reasons. Furthermore—sometimes—there may be no obvious reason at all.

In fact, the next addicted individual could be your grandma after surgery, a Wall Street professional with a stable job, or just your everyday neighborhood family man. Addiction is a complex disease that discriminates against no one, yet harms many.            

Early Signs of Addiction

There is a distinct difference between substance use and substance abuse. The line from use to dependency, or addiction, is a fine one that can be difficult to identify initially. 

Addiction is a chronic disorder, meaning it will progress over time unless it is treated.

This is particularly true with substances such as alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco, as they are commonly used without life-destroying effects and widely accepted in society. Being able to identify signs of addiction early on can help to avoid permanent, and potentially fatal, mental, physical, financial, emotional, and relational damage. 

So, what might it look like if someone is on the path to addiction? Here are some signs you might observe: 

Behavioral Changes

  • Degraded performance at work, school, and around the house 
  • Disengagement from important relationships, pulling away, and secretive behavior 
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns 
  • Changing energy levels, with someone becoming more energetic or lethargic than normal 
  • Loss of interest in activities and people that were previously important  
  • Halted pursuit of their passions, like creating art or playing their favorite sport 
  • Loss of motivation for everyday activities and longer-term goals
  • Lack of “presence,” even around other people 
  • Heightened anxiety or paranoia 
  • Denial when confronted about behavioral changes 
  • Regularly and urgently needing to leave 
  • A whole new friend group
  • Increased fighting with family and friends
  • An abrupt stop to communication or tendency to “cut people out”

Physical Changes 

  • Rapid weight loss or gain 
  • Glossy or bloodshot eyes, or constantly dilated or constricted pupils 
  • Unexplained bruises or injuries 
  • Shakiness or frequent nosebleeds  
  • New or strange odors on the person, their clothes, or in their room.  
  • Neglected hygiene

Mental and Emotional Changes 

  • Increased sadness, anger, or irritability 
  • Mood swings and frequent negative emotions
  • Heightened thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Financial Hardships 

  • Financial difficulty 
  • Frequently asking to borrow money  
  • Theft of money or belongings 

How Substance Use Disorders Progress

While all substance abuse is serious, there are many signs that an SUD is progressing out of control. Addiction is a chronic disorder, meaning it will progress over time unless it is treated. Even those who appear to be “in control” or “high-functioning” may begin to display serious symptoms over time as their use becomes more habitual.

Neglecting Responsibilities

A person’s performance at work, school, and around the house may begin to deteriorate. They may begin to disengage from important relationships, pull away and become secretive. Perhaps their personal hygiene declines along with the cleanliness of their home.

The person may begin to experience financial difficulties, miss payments on bills and rent, and even begin to steal in order to obtain drugs. They may begin to miss obligations, not show up to school or work, or disappear for hours or even days at a time. This could lead to not them having the financial means to pay their general monthly expenses. Eventually, they could lose their job—leading to even more financial hardship.

Interests and Activities

People with substance use disorders may no longer be interested in prior activities and people that were important to them. They may stop pursuing their passions, creating art, or playing their favorite sport. They lose motivation for everyday activities and their longer-term goals.

Friends and Family

An individual struggling with addiction may begin fighting more with their friends and family or not communicating with them at all. They may suddenly have a whole new group of friends, and their romantic relationships may become more volatile. They might struggle to recall conversations or remember recent occurrences, big or small. As their disorder progresses, they will gradually isolate themselves from their friends, family, healthy influences, and the world around them.


The person’s appetite and sleep patterns may change. You may notice that their energy levels have changed, they could be more energetic or lethargic than normal. Even when they are around other people, they do not seem present. They might become anxious or paranoid. They will deny that their behavior or day-to-day norms have changed. They may regularly and urgently express the need to leave at random times. 

Image of a woman sleeping

Mental and Emotional Life

Someone in the throes of an addiction may become sad, angry, irritable, or even numb to their feelings and the world. The person may experience dark emotions and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If someone you know has expressed thoughts of violence or self-harm, or if you belive they may be contemplating suicide, contact emergency services. 


A person with a substance use disorder may lose or gain weight rapidly. Their eyes could be glossy, bloodshot, or their pupils could constantly be dilated or constricted. There may be unexplained bruises and injuries occurring. Perhaps they are shaky or having more nosebleeds than normal. There might be new or strange odors on the individual, their clothes, or in their room.  

Knowing When it’s Serious

These are some potential warning signs of an SUD. When observing these signs, you must take into account what kind of behavior is normal for the individual, and whether or not these may be symptoms of other mental or physical health issues occurring.

Occasional substance use or experimentation can sometimes escalate into a substance use disorder. This becomes a serious problem as it will eventually start to negatively affect that person’s everyday habits, livelihood, and relationships. When someone experiences withdrawals from ceasing use of a substance, it is a strong sign that their use progressed to an addiction.    

How Can You Help Someone With Signs of Addiction?

If you believe someone you know has a substance use disorder, or may be showing signs that they are headed in that direction, your support can make a world of difference. 

Your belief and encouragement in their recovery will be much more effective than making them feel ashamed, so, continue to encourage and cheer them on.

While it is ultimately up to the individual to get help, family and those closest to the person are in a unique position to notice the signs early on, as they are the ones who know them best. 

As a family member, you may be able to identify when your loved one is no longer acting normal and if there is something wrong. The earlier the signs of addiction are noticed and addressed, the better. However, do not beat yourself up if you did not see it right away. Substance use disorder can be a tricky illness, but it is one where recovery is possible at any stage.

Encourage Their Journey

If your loved one has developed an addiction, encourage them to seek professional help right away. Difficult conversations will be inevitable, and they may not be ready to hear the truth or admit to their disorder, but your support will play a huge role in a successful recovery. 

Avoid judgment, and, rather than thinking about how you could have prevented this, focus on how you can help them in their current stage. Ask the person how they would like you to support them. Give them some autonomy in the process, when possible, and let them know that you will be by their side throughout the recovery journey.

Present Actionable Steps

Offer to help them find a program, rehabilitation facility, group meeting, or individual therapy that is suited to their needs. Drive them to appointments and attend meetings with them if they would like. Create a safe space and substance-free environment for them to be in. 

Learn what you can about the substance being used so you know, not only the signs of continued use, but also how to respond in the case of an emergency or overdose. Help them find resources where they can learn about alternative coping mechanisms, such as physical activity, music, books, or other media they can engage in when they have the desire to use substances. 

Image of two people sitting together

Set Boundaries

It is important to show your support but also create healthy boundaries. If someone with a substance use disorder is not yet ready to heal, loved ones can sometimes enable the substance use more than aid them in their recovery. 

If you are unsure how to help or even cope, reach out to a professional yourself. There are tough situations where the family may need to simply tell the individual that they love and care for them but not necessarily provide them with what they are asking for (money, a place to stay, etc.). 

Most importantly, keep yourself safe. Addiction can cause some people to exhibit out-of-character, manipulative, and violent behavior—even to those closest to them. 

Address Collateral Damage

While there may only be one person abusing drugs or alcohol, the fallout of this lifestyle can have a strong ripple effect on their family, friends, and coworkers. 

It is difficult to watch someone go through a battle of dependency on a substance that tears their life and relationships apart. However, It is important to have compassion in these difficult times as once the substance use has progressed to the level of addiction, the individual has become enslaved to the substance. 

At this point, they may be experiencing their own shame and regret, but have no way of controlling it. Your belief and encouragement in their recovery will be much more effective than making them feel ashamed, so, continue to encourage and cheer them on. 

Remember, however, that you cannot make the choice for them. In order for recovery to be possible and successful, the drive must come from within the individual. 

If You Are The One Struggling

If you fear you have a substance use disorder, remember that recovery truly is possible, and happening every day. People around you may never fully understand what you are going through, or how to properly help you every step of the way, but, hopefully, they mean well and simply want you to live a long, healthy, and happy life.

Seek professional help and accept the support offered by others. Of course, there are instances where someone has not gotten lucky enough to have good family influences. In this case, it is okay to distance yourself from them and establish new and healthy friendships with others in recovery. These people can become a kind of family to you and support you along the way.

Build a support group and communicate with the people you trust. Recovery is a day-by-day process, and there are support resources waiting for you when you are ready to make the change. Your trajectory may not always be perfectly clear, but that does not mean you are not making progress in the right direction.

Get Compassionate Care at Sequoia

Here at Sequoia Behavioral Health, we can help. We focus on holistic treatment for each individual once they’ve gone through detox. Our residential program consists of  individual and group therapies with focuses on treating trauma. Additionally, we can connect you to a number of resources and professionals to provide referrals for detox and aftercare. Contact us today