The signs and symptoms of addiction

When addiction grips a person, worries about stigma may lead them to try to hide it.

Here, we discuss the signs, symptoms, and nature of addiction with insight from Claire Rimmer, the Lead Addictions Therapist at The Priory Hospital, Altrincham, and Dr Tim Cantopher, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Woking.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a mental health condition that results when an act or substance is used to the extent that it interferes with everyday life. Common addictions include, but are by no means restricted to, alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription drugs.

A societal problem of stigma

It is widely understood that stigma exists towards those with addiction, with our culture specifically harbouring this attitude in Dr Cantopher’s opinion: “People either think it’s funny – getting drunk and falling down in the road – or they see it as dreadfully shameful and believe that people with such problems should be shunned”.  Dr Cantopher urged, however, that people living with an addiction should try and seek help whenever possible, saying “please don’t waste time punishing yourself.”

‘Shame’ and the cycle of addiction

Addiction can be devastating, potentially resulting in failed relationships, money problems and emotional instability. Though these signs may show, admitting to an addiction can be particularly difficult, as the feeling of shame and denial can be overwhelming.

Dr Cantopher says “There’s a whole school of therapy for addictions which is about shame. For example, you get something wrong or you fail at something and you feel dreadfully ashamed, therefore you have some drinks in order to feel better, and then when you’ve drunk too much and something bad happens you feel more ashamed and therefore you have to drink more, thus entering a ghastly vicious cycle.

“If we can deal with the shame issue” Dr Cantopher adds, “then it’s a real start to getting people into treatment. The truth is that anybody can develop addictions; you’ve just got to drink enough or take enough for long enough.”

How to spot addiction

From experience at The Priory, we know that anybody can suffer from addiction. However, it is often the case that those with high pressured careers with high levels responsibility are more susceptible to addictions as a coping mechanism, as Claire Rimmer and Dr Cantopher have witnessed.

Symptoms of addiction will differ based on the substance or act, but you may notice the following signs:

  • Mood swings, with temper outbursts
  • Withdrawal from responsibility
  • Changes in work attendance or performance
  • A defensive attitude
  • Frequent small accidents or mistakes
  • Paranoia or overreaction to criticism
  • Secretive or dishonest behaviour
  • Distraction
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Lack of concern over appearance
  • Tiredness

These symptoms will vary in severity, but if you find that somebody you know is displaying some of the signs, you may want to consider the next steps.

How to help a person with addiction

If you need to raise the subject of addiction with somebody, it is best advised to speak to a specialist. “Just coming along and having a chat is the first step in addressing the problem” says Claire Rimmer, “It doesn’t matter where the person is at with the addiction.”

To approach the topic in conversation, it’s important that you are understanding and supportive. The following steps may help you to raise the topic sensitively:

  • Bring up your concerns in person and in private
  • Speak in a friendly way, without judgment or accusation
  • Avoid mentions of feelings – stick to facts instead
  • Mention specific instances or events, rather than general, vague attitudes
  • Be solution-focused and positive in the way you address the next steps

Recovering from addiction

Though recovery can feel distant to somebody suffering from a mental health condition like addiction, Dr Cantopher states that if a person is able to reach out for help, recovery can be a fruitful and educational experience: “Recovering from addiction can help a person to develop a degree of self-knowledge and realisation that most of us can only dream of. Addicts in recovery are some of the people I for one admire most. It’s getting past that shame which is the key.”

Dr Cantopher adds “Please don’t be ashamed of being an addict. By all means condemn your addiction, or the behaviours that happen during the addiction, but don’t condemn yourself. Get help and get into recovery.

If you’d like to learn more about addiction, read the dedicated page which features a downloadable PDF