What Are the Signs of Addiction?


For many of us, our idea of what addiction looks like comes from external sources like film or television. This can lead to misconceptions about what addiction truly entails and how it manifests in real life. The ability to recognise the signs and symptoms of addiction in ourselves and others can facilitate early intervention and better outcomes.

This article will review the common signs of addiction and outline subtle shifts in behaviour and physical appearance that can help you identify addiction.

If you recognise any signs or symptoms on this page, in yourself or someone you know, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Seeking help as early as possible gives you the best chance of overcoming addiction and maintaining recovery.

Understanding the Signs of Addiction

Addiction is characterised by loss of control and continued substance use or behaviours despite negative consequences. Detecting addiction involves paying attention to physical, psychological and social changes that can occur with repeated use of a substance or ongoing behaviour.1

Physical signs of addiction can include dilated or constricted pupils, altered sleep patterns, appetite changes and differences in physical appearance.

Psychological signs are also key indicators of addiction and can include personality changes, sudden mood swings, anxiety and paranoia.

An individual’s behaviour can also be influenced by addiction. Increased secretiveness, withdrawal from social interactions, and a sudden lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities can all occur with addiction. An individual’s approach to work, school or social activities can also be altered, leading to increased absenteeism and/or declining performance.

Signs of addiction may differ between substance use disorders (SUDs) and behavioural addictions. We’re going to look at both categories in turn.

Remember that you are not alone if you recognise yourself in these symptoms. Seeking help is the first step towards recovery, and there are many helpful resources and programmes available to help you overcome addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Addictions

Substance addictions, also known as substance use disorders (SUDs), feature dependencies on tobacco, alcohol, drugs or prescription medications. These conditions are characterised by an inability to cut down, physical dependence and risky and continued use despite negative consequences. SUDs can manifest through physical symptoms, behavioural changes, emotional shifts and social disruptions.

SUDs range from mild to severe, depending on the number of symptoms experienced by the substance user. These conditions are often accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, which occur when an individual reduces or stops substance use.

Physical Symptoms

Substance use disorders can present differently depending on the substance, route of administration and factors relating to the individual using the substance. Physical symptoms and signs can be significant and alarming and can result from substance use or withdrawal. They include changes in appearance and issues with physical health.

Changes in Appearance2,4

  • Weight Fluctuations: Sudden and/or unexplained weight loss or gain can be a sign of substance addiction. Different substances affect metabolism and appetite in various ways, leading to noticeable changes in body weight.
  • Poor Personal Hygiene: Neglecting personal grooming and hygiene is common among those struggling with addiction. You may notice an unkempt appearance, body odour and a general decline in cleanliness.
  • Bloodshot Eyes and Pupillary Changes: Frequent use of certain substances can cause the eyes to appear red or bloodshot. Depending on the substance used, pupils can also appear smaller or larger than usual.4
  • Skin Changes: Substances like methamphetamine can lead to skin problems and general deterioration in skin conditions. This comes as a result of the compulsive movements caused by the use of methamphetamine, such as picking or scratching the skin.
  • Runny Nose: Snorting drugs like cocaine can cause frequent nasal secretions and irritate or damage nasal passages.

Physical Health Issues4,5

  • Nausea and Vomiting: Many substances, especially when used in excess, can cause gastrointestinal distress. Nausea and/or vomiting are also recognised withdrawal symptoms which can occur when substance use is reduced or stopped.
  • Muscle Aches or Pain: Use or withdrawal from certain substances, such as opioids, can lead to increased pain or discomfort.
  • Tremors: The use of substances such as alcohol and methamphetamines can cause noticeable tremors or shaking. The presence of tremors is often indicative of physical dependence and is a recognised withdrawal symptom.
  • Sweating and Chills: Unexplained sweating and/or chills can be a symptom of withdrawal from substances such as opioids or alcohol. These symptoms can occur even in comfortable temperatures and without physical exertion.
  • Seizures: Use or withdrawal from certain substances, including alcohol or benzodiazepines, can lead to seizures. These can be severe and require immediate medical intervention.

Physical dependence on a substance is evidenced by physical withdrawal symptoms which occur when use of the substance is reduced or stopped. These might include nausea, shaking, sweating, and even seizures6. If you or someone close to you is experiencing these symptoms, it’s critical to seek medical attention immediately.

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Psychological Symptoms

Psychological symptoms of substance addiction can vary widely depending on the substance being used, the individual’s mental health history and the severity of addiction. Some common psychological symptoms of addiction include2,4,5:

  • Mood Swings: Rapid and severe mood changes, ranging from euphoria to depression, can be a sign of substance addiction. Mood changes can be unprompted or result from changes in substance use
  • Anxiety and Paranoia: Increased levels of anxiety and paranoia are common, particularly with stimulants or hallucinogens. The individual may feel extremely nervous or fearful without a clear cause
  • Depression: Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness or worthlessness can be linked to substance addiction. This can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviours
  • Memory Problems: Difficulty remembering recent events or conversations can indicate substance use, especially with substances that affect brain function, like alcohol and benzodiazepines
  • Irritability and Agitation: Increased irritability and/or agitation can be a clear sign of substance addiction. An individual may quickly become upset or angry, often with little or no provocation
  • Hallucinations and Delusions: Some substances can cause the user to experience hallucinations (false sensory perceptions) or delusions (strongly held false beliefs)

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please reach out to a mental health professional. They’re trained to help you navigate your journey to recovery, offering the support and tools you need to overcome addiction. You’re not alone, and help is available.

It is important to note that addiction can also occur in individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions. This can make it harder to diagnose a substance use disorder and makes it all the more important to seek specialist help.

Behavioural Symptoms

Behavioural symptoms reflect changes in how a person interacts with the world. In the case of substance use disorders, these symptoms range from being extremely apparent to very subtle. Here are some key things to look out for 2,4:

  • Secrecy and Isolation: Addicted individuals may go to great lengths to hide their substance use whilst becoming increasingly secretive and isolated. They might lie about their whereabouts or activities and withdraw from friends and family
  • Neglect of Responsibilities: A noticeable decline in performance at work, school or home can be a sign of substance addiction. This includes increased absenteeism, missed deadlines and a general lack of interest in responsibilities
  • Loss of Interest in Hobbies: People struggling with addiction often lose interest in hobbies and activities they once enjoyed. This can be a gradual process whereby substance use is prioritised more and more over time
  • Risky Behaviours: Engaging in risky or dangerous activities, such as driving under the influence, unprotected sex or illegal activities to obtain substances, can be indicative of addiction
  • Financial Problems: Substance addiction can lead to financial difficulties, as the individual may spend a significant amount of money on their habit. They might also borrow money frequently, sell personal belongings or even steal to fund their addiction
  • Changes in Social Circles: A shift in social groups, particularly if the new friends are known to use substances, can be a sign of addiction. The individual might distance themselves from friends who do not use substances
  • Compulsive Use: An inability to cut down or control substance use despite repeated attempts and awareness of the negative consequences is a clear behavioural sign of addiction

Signs and Symptoms of Non-Substance Addictions

Non-substance addictions, also known as behavioural addictions or process addictions, can be just as debilitating as substance use disorders. Behavioural addictions encompass a range of activities like gambling, eating or internet use, that become compulsive and interfere with daily life.6

Remember, reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness but a courageous step towards recovery. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you or a loved one is struggling with a behavioural addiction.

Physical Symptoms

  • Behavioural addictions, such as gambling, internet, shopping and video game addictions6, might not involve the consumption of substances, but they can still have a profound impact on overall health and well-being. Physical consequences of compulsive behaviours can include:
  • Insomnia and Sleep Deprivation: Excessive engagement in addictive behaviours can disrupt normal sleep patterns, leading to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. For example, video game and internet addictions can lead to individuals staying up late, engrossed in their activities
  • Physical Strain and Discomfort: Prolonged screen time, particularly in gaming or internet addiction, can cause eye strain and headaches. Extended periods of sitting or maintaining poor posture during activities like gaming or internet use can result in neck and/or back pain 
  • Weight Changes: Individuals with behavioural addictions may neglect their physical needs. They might eat unhealthy meals, skip meals and/or adopt a sedentary lifestyle. Overeating is a recognised behavioural addiction which can lead to changes in weight 
  • Poor Personal Hygiene: Individuals suffering from behavioural addictions can  neglect their personal hygiene needs as a consequence of their compulsions
  • Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: The stress and excitement associated with behaviours like gambling or gaming can cause temporary increases in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal Problems: Stress from behavioural addictions can lead to gastrointestinal issues such as stomach aches, ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)7
  • Immune System Problems: Chronic stress and poor health habits associated with behavioural addictions can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and autoimmune diseases8

Psychological Symptoms

Some mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are recognised risk factors for the development of a behavioural addiction. Deterioration in an individual’s mental health and well-being is a significant factor in identifying and understanding the severity and scope of behavioural addictions. Individuals suffering from process addictions may experience the following symptoms:

  • Increased Anxiety: Persistent anxiety can occur in individuals with behavioural addictions. This anxiety can stem from the addictive behaviour itself or the consequences of the behaviour, such as financial problems or social isolation
  • Depression: Behavioural addictions can result in low mood, with individuals experiencing feelings of sadness, hopelessness and a lack of interest in life
  • Obsessive Thoughts: The individual may constantly think about the addictive behaviour, finding it difficult to focus on anything else. This obsession can dominate their thoughts and priorities
  • Mood Swings: Rapid and unpredictable mood changes can occur in individuals suffering from process addictions. These can range from periods of euphoria when engaging in the behaviour to irritability or sadness when they are unable to do so
  • Cognitive Distortions: Behavioural addictions can lead to irrational and/or negative thinking patterns. This occurs as the behaviour becomes the most significant activity in an individual’s life and dominates their thinking 

These psychological symptoms can be disconcerting, but it’s important not to lose hope. Early detection of these symptoms can positively impact the treatment of behavioural addictions and any underlying mental health conditions.

Behavioural Symptoms

Behavioural addictions are characterised by significant changes in behaviour, which can disrupt an individual’s life and relationships. Here are some key changes associated with behavioural addictions6:

  • Compulsiveness: An uncontrollable urge to engage in addictive behaviour, often at the expense of other important activities and responsibilities. This compulsiveness can dominate an individual’s daily life
  • Neglect of Responsibilities: Behavioural addictions can lead to a noticeable decline in fulfilling responsibilities at work, school or home. An individual may miss deadlines, skip important events and generally perform poorly in their obligations
  • Withdrawal From Social Activities: The individual may withdraw from social interactions and activities they once enjoyed, preferring to spend time alone engaging in addictive behaviour
  • Financial Problems: Behavioural addictions often lead to financial difficulties, as individuals may spend excessive amounts of money on their addiction, leading to economic instability or debt
  • Risky Behaviours: Individuals can engage in risky activities, such as gambling large sums of money, excessive shopping or participating in illegal activities to support their addiction
  • Loss of Interest in Other Activities: An individual with a behavioural addiction can abandon previous passions and pursuits in favour of their addiction. This can lead to a significant reduction in interest in hobbies, sports and other recreational activities

These behavioural shifts can be subtle at first but may escalate over time as tolerance is developed. If you recognise these behaviours in yourself or someone you know, it’s essential to seek help. Addiction is a disease, not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. There is a wealth of resources and programmes available to support recovery from addiction. 

When to Seek Help

Having observed potential symptoms of addiction in yourself or someone you care about, there may come a point when professional intervention becomes necessary.

Here are a few red flags which indicate that it’s time to seek treatment: 3,9

  • An individual’s drug use or behavioural addiction is causing physical and/or psychological harm 
  • Continued use or behaviours despite a decline in physical or mental health 
  • Development of physical dependency, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms 
  • Repeated, unsuccessful attempts to quit or reduce substance use or behaviours
  • Legal problems have arisen due to an individual’s substance use or excessive behaviour
  • Significant social and/or occupational consequences of addiction, such as job loss or relationship breakdowns 

These warning signs should not be ignored. Remember, although you can’t force someone to seek help, you can support and encourage them on their journey to recovery.

Treatment Options for Addiction

While it’s heartbreaking to witness a loved one struggle with addiction, understanding the various treatment options available can reassure you and allow you to guide them towards help.

For substance addictions, such as drug addictions and alcohol use disorder, treatment often begins with addressing physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms5. Medical detoxification under professional supervision is often necessary to manage these withdrawal symptoms safely. CATCH Recovery provides inpatient referrals for patients who require supervised care.

Treatment for behavioural addictions focuses on identifying and altering the behaviours and thought patterns driving the addiction, for example through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It can also be helpful to meet with a psychiatrist or psychologist, particularly if an individual has co-existing mental health conditions. 9 CATCH Recovery’s compassionate approach and personalised treatment plans ensure that every client receives the care and support they need to reclaim their life from addiction. To find out more, contact us today for a free, confidential addiction assessment.

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