It feels like you simply can’t cope without it. Whether you use only occasionally or multiple times each day, your substance of choice seems to be what’s getting you through the day. This article covers everything you need to know about drug and alcohol addiction, from definitions, symptoms, and causes to treatment options and other helpful resources. While addiction is a challenging and potentially life-threatening condition, treatment is available. Read on to learn more.
Drug and alcohol addiction (or substance use disorders) are common conditions whereby changes in a person’s brain makes it incredibly difficult for them to control their substance use. For many, alcohol is their crutch: anything from a few socially acceptable glasses of wine in the evening to a hip-flask of whiskey that’s swigged on throughout the day. Others find themselves hooked on illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana or methamphetamine. Others still find themselves addicted to cigarettes or prescription medications such as Oxycontin, Vicodin, Valium and Xanax, among others.
A U.S national survey from 2014 found that 8.5% of adults in the U.S. were addicted to drugs and/or alcohol – that’s 22.5 million people. Research also shows that people with another mental health condition (approximately half) are likely to use substances to cope with their disorder (this is called self-medicating).
Addiction is caused by multiple, interacting factors. For example, research shows that genes may play an important role. Social factors such as peer pressure, easily accessible drugs or alcohol and an environment that encourages substance use also contribute to addiction.
Furthermore, having another psychological condition puts you at risk, as does experiencing traumatic or challenging life events. Ultimately, drug and alcohol addictions occur in people who find themselves emotionally overwhelmed and in need of a substance to help them cope. While this may appear to be helpful in the moment, substance use is not a healthy coping strategy and my end up making things far worse.
Drug and alcohol addiction can manifest in many ways. These are some of the symptoms of a substance use disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
1. You find yourself using more than you intended and taking the substance over a longer period of time than you initially imagined.
2. You want to stop or reduce your substance use, but you don’t manage to do so despite trying.
3. You find that your substance use is eating away at your time, which you are spending obtaining the substance, using it or recovering from its effects.
4. You experience intense cravings and urges to use the substance.
5. Your substance use is interfering with your ability to live a normal life. You find that your work, family, social and recreational lives are suffering as a result. You may start spending less time and even avoiding these sorts of important activities.
6. Your substance use is clearly causing problems, but you’re still not able to stop.
7. You know that you’re putting yourself in danger, but you keep on using.
8. You continue using even though you recognize that you have an addiction and that you’re making the problem worse.
9. You develop a physiological tolerance, meaning that you need larger and larger quantities of the substance to get the same effect.
10. When you stop or cut-down, you develop withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms come in many different forms, ranging from anxiety, aches and pains, flu-like symptoms, nausea, fever and insomnia to life threatening symptoms such as delirium and seizures.
Sarah is 29 years old. She lives alone and works in an advertising agency. Sarah has struggled with social anxiety since she was a child but enjoys sharing a glass of wine with her colleagues after work on a Friday. Last year, Sarah’s marriage ended because her husband had been cheating. Since then, her anxiety levels surged, and she found that she was drinking several glasses of wine and a few whiskey sodas when she went out, to be able to enjoy her time with her friends. She also started to drink at home during the week to wind down.
She frequently experienced hangovers which made her anxiety worse, so she consulted with her family GP who prescribed Xanax. She found these pills to be effective at killing two birds with one stone: her social anxiety and her hangover, which she was experiencing daily at this point. She started taking the pills every day and when her script ran out, she found a friend who was able to sell her Xanax illegally.
Sarah started to worry that she had a problem when she started having financial difficulties due to overspending on alcohol and illegally purchased Xanax. She was also frequently late for work and her employers were concerned that the quality of her work was suffering. She was no longer as creative or productive, due to being in a constant fog of hangover and sedation. Eventually, she visited an addictions therapist for a consultation.
Sarah was admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation center, where the medical staff carefully guided her through the detox and withdrawal processes. Afterwards, Sarah spent several weeks in therapy groups and with an individual therapist, learning techniques for coping with cravings, stress and social anxiety. Eventually, Sarah was discharged and resumed work. She continued to see her individual therapist for extra support, as well as attending weekly AA meetings.
Many people believe that addicts simply lack motivation, willpower or a desire to change. However, often addicts desperately want to stop but because the behavior has been hard-wired into their brain, the process of quitting often requires external support. For this reason, coping with addiction is about getting the right sort of support and seeing your treatment through.
If you believe that you have a drug and alcohol addiction, it’s important to seek out professional support. Why? First, addiction an incredibly challenging issue to tackle on your own, as discussed above. Second, going through withdrawal can at times be life threatening. Suddenly stopping certain substances can lead to hallucinations, seizures, stroke and heart attacks. Seek out medical support if you’re looking to quit. Overdose is another big risk that may accompany addiction – many people die each year from consuming too much of a substance in one go. If you think that you or a loved one may have overdosed, call 911 immediately.
Many mental health practitioners believe that addiction cannot be cured, but that must rather be managed. While learning to manage an addiction is undoubtedly challenging, there are effective treatment strategies that can help you regain control.
Many people use individual therapy approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing. These therapy techniques aim to help you change problematic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors while building healthier coping skills and strategies that will enable you to keep clean. Individual therapy may also be combined with some of the following treatment approaches:
Group therapy is a powerful treatment for addiction. Group therapy may aim to help someone get clean and stay clean, using specific therapeutic techniques to help you manage this. Alternatively, groups may be used as an important source of support going forward, helping you to prevent future relapse.
One of the most popular group approaches is the 12 Step Program, also known as Alcoholics / Narcotics Anonymous. The 12 steps are a series of principles which are designed to guide you through the process of recovery. These principles draw heavily on religion. However, 12 Step programs are also available and effective for people who identify as being spiritual or non-religious.
There a wide variety of medications that can be helpful in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. For example, medications may be used to lessen the intensity of withdrawal symptoms and to help prevent relapse later down the line. Medications may also be used to treat other underlying or co-occurring conditions including psychological disorder which often put a person at risk of addiction, such as depression and anxiety. Experts recommend that medications be used in conjunction with behavioral or group therapy.
At times, hospitalization may be required to help someone who is coming off a substance to avoid uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Once the person has detoxed and withdrawal symptoms are no longer as intense, the hospital should facilitate a referral to another program which will help the person to stay clean.
Going to rehab involves staying in a facility for a certain period. During that time, all of the services that you need to start managing your addiction (including medical detox services, nurses, counselors, educators, therapists, and groups) will be provided and coordinated under one roof.
Insurance Coverage for Drug and Alcohol Addiction
Addiction is increasingly being recognized as a condition that puts a burden not just on an individual, but on the person’s family, the healthcare system and the economy more generally. For this reason, coverage is being provided more frequently by health insurance companies. However, the sort of treatment which will be covered may differ according to your plan. If you’re considering getting treatment, consider speaking to your insurance provider first to find out about your benefits.
This is a complex and controversial debate which divides the medical community. What makes this debate especially complicated is the fact that there is no official consensus on the definition of a disease – what counts and what doesn’t.
The way that drug and alcohol addictions change a person’s biology has led many to argue that addiction is, in fact, a disease. For example, research shows that addiction is associated with changes in the structure and functioning of a person’s brain. These changes make it incredibly difficult – nearly impossible – for people to resist their urges. The brain’s neurochemical system and reward circuitry responds to drugs or alcohol as if these are basic survival necessities, like food, water, and sleep.
Nonetheless, some argue that addiction shouldn’t be classified as a disease because this means that people do not need to be accountable for their actions. While the debate rages on, one thing is not in dispute among healthcare providers: whether or not we classify addiction as a disease, people suffer as a result of it and support must be provided to those in need.
You can find a therapist through an online search or by asking friends and family members for recommendations. Alternatively, you could ask your doctor for a referral, visit Psychology Today’s directory for addictions specialists or browse through the resources that we have provided below.
Online therapy is another option that allows people to consult with a licensed professional from the comfort of their own homes. ThriveTalk is a platform which connects people with the right therapist for their needs. The sign-up process is straightforward, all of the therapists are fully licensed and many have addictions-specific experience. Follow the link to learn more about the services offered and how you can be supported in taking back control.
Addiction is a very specific area of practice – you should look for a therapist who has experience working in this field. Ideally, you would want to consult with a therapist who you feel safe and comfortable talking to as well.
General information and educational resources:
Information about withdrawal
Resources for finding treatment:
Find publicly funded treatment centers: 1-800-662-HELP
For overdoses and other emergencies: 911
Support and general information: 844-778-1026
Imagine a time in the distant future. Try to picture someone talking to a therapist on a screen that is set up in their home. Think of how they could be lying down on their own personal therapy couch, discussing their most intimate fears and concerns with a qualified mental health professional.