How To Tell If Someone You Know Has Developed An Addiction?

No one wants to believe that their loved one might have developed an addiction and one may even find themselves in disbelief or even denial when the truth comes out. We care about our loved ones and helping them overcome addiction may seem scary and even impossible. However, addiction can be treated, and there are hundreds of thousands of happy, healthy former addicts who have found sobriety after struggling with these issues, This article will help arm you with important information about addiction, as well as how to tell if your loved one may be battling a substance abuse issue or addiction.

What is addiction?

The World Health Organization (ICD-10) and the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV), set standards for what qualifies a person to be diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Patients must meet a minimum of 3 of the symptoms listed below:

  • A built-up tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using
  • Limited control
  • Negative consequences occurring in their life
  • Disinterest in activities or socialization 
  • Risky use of a substance or behaving erratically in order to acquire more of the substance
  • Desire to cut down on the use

Addiction can be broken down into different stages. The early stage is when the individual with addiction is still functioning fairly normally. They still have their careers, and their relationships are still intact, but areas of their lives may be beginning to suffer because of their habit. This scenario is the most common. Significant losses do not have to occur in order for one to be diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. When an addict begins to struggle to function in society due to their habit, this signals the start of the late stages of addiction. At this point, they have likely neglected their duties at work and may have lost their job. Their relationships and social life have begun to suffer as well. Addiction is a progressive disease, typically getting worse and worse over time. It usually will not get better without intervention.

The four stages of addiction are:

  • Experimentation: engages or uses out of curiosity
  • Regular or social: engages or uses for social reasons or during social situations
  • Risk or problem: engages or uses in an out-of-proportion way without regard for consequences
  • Dependency: participates in the behavior or uses daily, or multiple times in a day, despite the associated negative consequences

Why do people develop addictions?

Addiction usually develops as a result of a person attempting to numb emotional pain, whether it be from trauma, anxiety, depression, or any number of chemical imbalances in the brain which are causing them suffering. By treating diagnoses simultaneously, you can address all of these issues at the same time. It helps to understand why the brain works the way it does, and develop the necessary coping skills to help combat negative thoughts and feelings stemming from one’s addiction and/or mental health disorder. Some other things that can leave a person susceptible to developing an addiction are:


Studies that have examined identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings have found evidence that suggests that as much as 50 percent of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to drugs is dependent on his or her genetic makeup. A look into a person’s genetic history can tell your healthcare provider if they need to adjust or change treatment based on any number of factors. 

Family history of addiction/exposure

Simple exposure to drugs in the household can also increase a person’s likelihood to become addicted. If a person’s parents or siblings, or other members who reside within the household are bringing drugs in and out of the home consistently, or even using in the presence of other family members, this can instill a stronger vulnerability in those others in the house. 

Parents who struggle with substance abuse issues are often unable to properly care for themselves, let alone their children. This leads to a situation where the children are being neglected, which can instill emotional issues and trauma. Unearthing and addressing past trauma is key to treating addiction, and those who have an addiction or mental health disorder as a result of things that occurred in their childhood will have different needs than those who may have experienced trauma later in life, or different kinds of trauma. 


There is strong evidence connecting chronic stress with the motivation to abuse drugs or alcohol. Stressful experiences during childhood such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, family dysfunction, etc are strongly associated with an increased risk for addiction. In addition, unhappy marriages, dissatisfaction with employment, harassment, etc are often cited as major catalysts for addiction. 

Drugs, alcohol, certain foods, and activities have the same effect of stimulating the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, causing us to experience a pleasurable response. The brain remembers the good feeling that the substance or activity caused, and it will instill a desire in you to continue seeking out whatever caused the response. These pleasurable experiences are especially desired when the person is also experiencing stress, as the dopamine provides an escape from the negative feelings that come along with chronic stress. 

Poor coping skills

When one is unable to properly address and work through stress, they are more likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to continue functioning. Therapy and treatment programs help teach these skills so that the person can continue to live a sober, happy life.

Signs that someone is suffering from addiction

It’s important to know what signs and symptoms to look for when assessing a loved one for an addiction issue. However, the symptoms of addiction can look a lot like symptoms of other health issues, and a lot of mental health issues. Regardless, your concern is likely justified if the person in question is clearly going through a tough time, even if it isn’t due to a substance abuse issue. Here are some major things to look out for:

Psychological Symptoms

  • Dependence on a substance characterized by loss of control over use.
  • Use of substance despite negative effects on the person’s health and wellbeing.
  • Obsession over acquiring more of the substance, spending an abnormal amount of time and energy to get it.
  • Increasingly risky behavior to acquire substance, including theft, violence, trading sex, etc.
  • Increase in consumption of the substance due to building tolerance (i.e. consuming more and more alcohol as time goes on).

Social Symptoms

  • No longer taking part in activities they once enjoyed.
  • Not engaging in activities that will interrupt the consistency of their habit (i.e. overnight trips).
  • Secrecy and isolation from friends and family.
  • Denial of the issue and insistence that they are in control and can quit at any time, they just don’t want to.
  • Stashing/hiding the substance to avoid detection.
  • Legal issues.
  • Financial difficulties.

Physical Symptoms

  • Change in appearance. The person may appear more gaunt, thin, and neglect their hygiene.
  • Appetite changes. Usually, this is characterized by eating less, not more and can be accompanied by drastic weight loss. 
  • Decline in overall health. 
  • Insomnia.
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, trembling, seizures, excessive sweating, moodiness, etc.

Also, look out for paraphernalia used to inject/consume drugs. Empty liquor bottles, syringes, burnt tin foil/spoons, lighters, etc.

What do I do if I think my loved one has an addiction?

It’s not easy confronting someone you love, but oftentimes it must be done. You may run into resistance at first, but if you demonstrate unwavering compassion and support in your loved one’s recovery journey, they are much more likely to be successful. Here are some other articles from us that can help kick off the stages of getting your friend or family member the help they need: