The Most Overlooked Symptom Of Addiction

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Addictions. Huh. That thing everyone whispers about, or worse, tiptoes around, yet, has the power to take someone out or ruin their life in the blink of an eye. An addiction, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is evident when there is a "compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal." I think that most of us would agree with this definition.

More broadly defined, Merriam-Webster states that an addiction is characterized by "persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful." Although this might seem more general, this is the definition that I believe to be more important whenever someone is determining whether or not they have an addiction. The truth is, folks, everyone has an unhealthy dependency on something. Absolutely everyone that you meet. And if someone tells you that they do not, then you absolutely know that they do. And this is perhaps, the most overlooked symptom of an addiction. We all have some degree of addiction.

The most overlooked symptom of addiction

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The question is not "Do I have one?," but rather, "What and where is mine?" The problem is that when most people think of addiction and the symptoms of addiction, they think of classic examples such as drugs or alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, or sugar. Although these substances and behaviors are common addictions, there are many other forms of addiction that unfortunately stay hidden from most people, because they are accepted by society as within the range of normal behavior.



Things like exercise, caffeine, reading, work, food, religion, and even technology are examples of addictive behaviors or substances, that when used to avoid there, here and now, the reality of someone or something bothering you. This, coupled with the inability to choose to use or engage or not use or engage in these behaviors when feeling down, can also be an indicator of an unhealthy dependency or addiction.

I like to think of an addiction as broadly defined such as anything that someone uses to feel better, numb out, or distract when they are having a hard day or a rough experience. We all have addictions to varying degrees, and the line between what constitutes a "serious" or "diagnosable" addiction between a harmful dependency on something is very small. Quite honestly, it serves no purpose to mince words: if someone asks you whether or not you could give this person, thing, or substance up for a period of time, and you feel panic or even look like a deer in headlights, then there is a reasonable chance that there is an addictive dependency that is present as a way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings or emotions.

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Perhaps one of the most obvious addictions and most socially acceptable addictions present day is right in front of our noses. We all use it. Repeatedly. And sometimes multiple times throughout the day. It is called technology, otherwise known as "screen time" for kids. If we think about addiction as anything we do to take us out of the moment, there is nothing better than Facebook or the internet to help us pass the time or forget what was bothering us. An addiction is something as simple as the use of or engagement in something that results in repeated harmful or dissatisfying outcomes, whether those harmful or dissatisfying outcomes are physical, behavioral, or emotional.



And addictions are not only of a substance, such as cigarettes or alcohol but can also be process addictions, which are compulsive behaviors that have negative consequences for us. Many abusive relationships are often processed addictions that someone cannot break free from. In many cases, these process addictions go undiagnosed or unrecognized, which can be incredibly detrimental to self-esteem and worth.

Ever had a friend or loved one continue in an abusive relationship, saying that they need to leave but just cannot? Well, chances are there was some kind of process addictive quality in the relationship. It has only been fairly recently that there has been an increased emphasis on learning about process addictions in the mental health field, although these types of addictions and dependencies have been around for a very long time.

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I tend to not get hung up on whether something is an addiction or harmful dependency because in my experience, anything that "numbs us out" distracts us when we are feeling down or overwhelmed or keeps us from having to feel more painful feelings if we were to stop, serves the same purpose: to get emotional relief in any sort of way available. I am inclined to believe that everyone has an addiction or unhelpful dependency on something, and this dependency generally stems from an inability to get emotional relief in any other way.

Depending upon the amount of emotional support in childhood, the degree, amount, or severity of addictions in later life will vary from person to person. If there was not much support for having or processing feelings as a child, then as an adult there is going to be little skill or knowledge about how to handle difficult feelings or experiences that occur in life. And this is where addictions come in — they give us emotional relief when we are unable to do so in more satisfying ways. Just because we look like an adult, and do grown-up kinds of things such as driving cars, paying bills, raise children, and so forth, does not mean that we are emotional adults fully capable of supporting all of our feelings in satisfying kinds of ways. So the question is not "Do I have an addiction?" but rather "What is my addiction?"

An addiction is anything we use to feel better that we cannot give up or stop voluntarily for an extended amount of time. So the next time you feel compelled to get on the computer or to go for that run, or even notice that you have to have your Starbucks before you can do anything else, you might ask yourself: "What would happen if I didn’t do this?" And if there is any sort of negative reaction that happens inside at the thought of not making that next move, you might want to explore that further to determine whether you are avoiding some emotional experience thing that isn’t going to go away on its own, and actually limits the amount of satisfaction you can feel in your life.  

Drug and alcohol addiction is incredibly common.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that approximately 20.3 million people above the age of 12 have suffered from a substance use disorder in the past year. According to SAMHSA’s 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, close to 2 million people of the same age bracket have suffered from opioid use disorders and 14.8 million from alcohol use disorders.

Misusing alcohol and other drugs can be both detrimental to your immediate and long-term physical, emotional, and mental health.

Alcohol and drug addiction is something to take seriously, although often overlooked. Anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender can suffer from alcohol and drug addiction.
Recovering from an addiction is more than just abstaining from drugs or alcohol. It’s about investigating the internal framework of your brain, rewiring your thought patterns, and actively changing behaviors over a long period of time.

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, there are resources to get help.

The process of recovery is not linear, but the first step to getting better is asking for help. For more information, referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups, and relevant links, visit SAMHSA’s website. If you’d like to join a recovery support group, you can locate the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings near you. Or you can call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-799-7233, which is a free 24/7 confidential information service in both English and Spanish. For TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, call 1-800-487-4889.

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Kate Schroeder is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, State qualified supervision eligible, as well as a Nationally Certified Counselor, who has over 25 years of professional experience working with children, adolescents, teenagers, adults, and families.