Characteristics Of Addiction

Substance use disorders are hallmarked by an individual’s inability to stop using a substance regardless of negative consequences. Addiction is a pervasive disease, meaning it affects not the just the person using, but those around them as well. Often, someone who struggles with a substance use disorder will display many signs of an addiction, some of which may be more easily recognizable than others.

Different substances have different effects on a person’s mind and body. The use of some substances can develop into a substance use disorder quicker than others, especially when physical dependence becomes noticeable. Other substances can have more a potent impact on its user that can lead to serious medical events like overdose or even death.

If left untreated, alcohol and drug addiction can lead to severe injury or even death.

Given enough time, substance misuse and abuse often develop into addiction. If left untreated, alcohol and drug addiction can lead to severe injury or even death.

Many factors can influence someone’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. Some of these factors include:

  • Genetics
  • Childhood exposure to unhealthy substance use
  • Exposure to traumatic experiences
  • Childhood experience of verbal, emotional, physical abuse, or neglect in the home
  • Family history of mental health or substance use disorders

How To Help A Loved One

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Dr. Ashish Bhatt, MD discusses the effect of addiction on families and the value of getting professional help for a loved one.

Why Addiction Is Difficult To Overcome

Contrary to popular belief, quitting is not a matter of willpower or morality. Overcoming addiction is a struggle, even for someone who genuinely wants to stop using. This is because substance abuse changes how the brain functions over time, making quitting less of just “stopping” substance use, and more of retraining the brain to live substance-free.

Some substances, like Heroin, “fool” the brain into releasing certain neurochemicals, producing a euphoric high. Drugs like Cocaine or Methamphetamine cause the brain to release too much of the happiness-inducing chemical dopamine. Both of these drugs also alter the brain’s structural makeup in ways that causes the user to become chemically addicted to them.

People addicted to drugs or alcohol develop a tolerance, or resistance, to their substance’s effects over time, resulting in a need for a higher amounts of the substance to achieve the same effect they once had. Eventually, substance use no longer becomes an enjoyable experience and transitions into what is called “maintenance.”

When this happens, the use of substances is now more focused on not feeling “sick” due to withdrawal symptoms and maintaining their status quo so they can get through the day. When someone addicted to a substance quits “cold turkey,” they can suffer painful withdrawal symptoms that become a powerful motivator to continue using, creating what many refer to as a vicious cycle.

Withdrawal symptoms are some of the biggest reasons why quitting drugs or alcohol is so difficult.

Substance use often occurs alongside mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. For many, substance use “medicates” their symptoms to help them feel like they can manage throughout the day, which often results in their symptoms growing even worse.

To ensure your loved one’s safety, it’s important for them to get medical help to manage withdrawal and other health risks of quitting. Stopping use without professional supervision is not only difficult but often dangerous.

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Loved Ones And Addiction: Coming To Terms With Your Feelings

Addiction affects more than just the person who has an substance use disorder. Family members and loved ones of someone living with an addiction are often subjected to different experiences of physical and emotional pain. Substance use disorders often impact everyone close to the individual, which can feel like the harm is intentional, however that is rarely the case.

It is extremely important to recognize that a loved one’s substance use disorder is never anyone’s fault or responsibility but the individual who is using.

A crucial part of the recovery process is accepting the responsibility to get sober. Accepting and understanding that there is no benefit in trying to find fault for a loved one’s addiction is also crucial to family healing. It’s natural to feel hurt by a loved one’s behaviors as they struggle with an addiction, but it’s important to recognize these emotions for what they are. Holding onto frustration and anger for too long can make rebuilding family trust difficult. Support groups like Al-Anon help family and friends accept these feelings while learning how to support an addicted loved one — and yourself — during addiction recovery.

Loved Ones And Addiction: How To Help

There are numerous ways to help a loved one begin their journey to find recovery from a substance use disorder.

Communicate Your Concerns

Communication is one of our most powerful tools, yet it also tends to be one of the more difficult to use. No one wants to hurt other people’s feelings or make them feel less than, but it’s also important to make it clear that their current behaviors and experiences are causing concern.

The act of communicating your concerns needs to be thought about in advance. When doing so, it’s important to try and think of ways you can minimize any impulsive statements you may make, and how you can focus on expressing the most important concerns and needs to ensure they understand. Many people like to utilize a family therapist to help with this step, as having a professional in the room can make things easier. Some tips for doing this include:

  • Using “I” statements instead of “you” statements to share concerns and feelings. (e.g. “I feel worried when you drive after drinking.” vs. “You make me feel worried when you drink and drive.”)
  • Utilize a neutral tone. Try not to let emotion impact how you say your words to help the individual not feel attacked.
  • Stick to focus points. Too many topics will cause people to feel overwhelmed and shut down from the conversation.
  • Establish firm (but fair) boundaries on what behaviors are safe , and which are not moving forward. This can often include setting consequences if these unsafe behaviors continue to occur.

Stage An Intervention

If communicating your concerns did not result in seeing a change, you can enlist a professional to hold a meeting between the individual struggling with addiction and their loved ones. An intervention can be an effective tool to encourage someone to seek addiction treatment.
During an intervention, family, friends, coworkers, employers, or anyone else who may be affected by a person’s addiction have the opportunity to tell them in their own words how their drug or alcohol use has affected their lives.


Medically assisted detox is often necessary to recover safely from many forms of substance use disorders and addiction. Inpatient and outpatient drug detoxes can reduce painful withdrawal symptoms and prevent serous life-threatening conditions from developing.

Inpatient And Outpatient Drug Rehabs

Treatment programs across the country specialize in inpatient and outpatient addiction recovery. Inpatient treatment programs offer 24-hour on-site care, while outpatient programs allow recovering individual to stay at home while undergoing treatment. These programs can provide  medical and mental health expertise to help them get — and stay — sober.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Many private therapy practices and substance use treatment centers practice cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help with recovery. CBT helps people learn how to cope with uncomfortable emotions by growing their understanding of how their emotions and thoughts play a larger role in their decision making. This process helps find new ways to manage uncomfortable emotions in a safe way without the need for a substance to numb the pain.

Support Groups

Joining a group of like-minded people in recovery can be a great help for loved ones struggling with addiction. For decades, 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have supported millions of people during recovery. New self-help programs like SMART Recovery™ offer support as well.

Find Addiction Support Today

There are many things you can do to help your loved one through this difficult time in their life. It’s important you remain supportive yet firm about treatment. If you want to talk to someone about how to get your loved one treatment for their addiction, contact a treatment provider for help.