Overcoming Addiction: How to Recognize the Signs and When to Get Help

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD
March 16, 2020

Throughout the years, thanks to technological advancements, it’s become easier and easier to have whatever you want, when you want it. Instant access to information, entertainment, people, and even food is now available to all. In our fast-paced modern lives, having access to the things we need when we need them helps with productivity and can decrease stress. The downside, however, cannot be ignored, as having this instant availability to anything we could ever want can also increases impulse-driven difficulties that actually make life more difficult.


Researchers and clinicians who work with addiction are finding that it appears that addiction and addictive behavior is on the rise and that in addition to traditional types of addiction like drugs, alcohol, and gambling; other forms of addiction seem to be spreading to other areas partly due to technological advances.

This article will discuss the different kinds of addictions that are currently plaguing humans around the world, and how to recognize the signs of significant addictive behavior that require assistance from a mental health or medical professional. Addiction, when unmanaged, can become a serious and life-threatening disease that can destroy a person’s ability to function in life and can sometimes ultimately lead to death. Getting someone the help they need to manage addiction early on is the best way to help improve their chances of being able to recover and overcome the hold that addiction can have on their lives.

When speaking about addiction and addictive behavior, there are two major types of addictions and many different subtypes that are most often discussed. The two major types of addiction are substance dependence addiction and behavioral addiction. Substance dependence addiction involves the persistent use of substances (alcohol, illicit or prescription drugs, etc.)  An addicted individual does not feel that he or she can control the overuse of these substances, which can disrupt their ability to function in their day to day life. Behavioral addiction is similar in nature, but involves a person engaging in problematic behaviors (gambling, pornography use, technology use, video game use, etc.) that they feel they cannot control. These behaviors eventually significantly impair the way they function in life as well. Below is a list of common substance dependence and behavioral addiction types.

Substance Dependence Addiction

Various substances that run the risk of addiction include the following:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Sedatives
  • Opioids
  • Stimulants
  • Stimulants

Behavioral Addiction


Gambling, when reaching the point of a behavioral addiction, can cause people to get into serious debt or get involved in dangerous situations. They may find themselves owing others money, which can make it difficult for them to function in their lives.

Sex Addiction

While there are many that are unsure whether or not sex addiction is a “real” addiction, many people experience an inability to control sexual urges and impulses in a way that affects their relationships, their ability to function at work, and can affect their life as a whole.

Categorized under sex addiction would also be pornography use, which has become more and more problematic, particularly for young men since the development of the internet.

Eating Disorders

Compulsive Eating: The Inability to resist eating, causing health, and weight problem.

Anorexia: Restrictive eating due to distorted ideas about body image.

Bulimia: Eating large amounts of food (binge eating) and then purging or forcing oneself to vomit or use other ways (fasting, laxatives, excessive exercise, etc.) to attempt to undo the effects of what they have eaten

Binge Eating: Often used as a way to cope with negative feelings, binge eaters will eat large amounts of food, increasing the likelihood of problematic health and weight.

Pica: Eating things that aren’t considered food.

Technology Addiction

Compulsive Internet Use: This could be related to shopping, searching for information, social media or other things that people find impossible to control.

Cyber Relationship Addiction: While finding romantic connections online may be the best way for some to find a partner, some can engage in cyber relationships in a way that is destructive to their non-cyber life.

Gaming Addiction: A common issue with current generations of children in particular, the compulsive use of computer and other video games can cause a person to experience significant distress when limiting their use of these forms of entertainment.

Pornography or Online Sex Addiction: Forms of online sexual images or encounters can also become a source of compulsive or addictive behavior.

Signs of Addiction

We live in a world where it has become so easy to get the things that we want that it has made it increasingly harder to accomplish the things we actually need to accomplish. The constant temptation to engage in more preferred activities like scrolling on social media, playing video games, or watching television rather than completing non-preferred tasks is a common battle that we all face. Nevertheless, when does this normal day to day struggle become an addiction? Here are some of the signs of addiction that may help you to determine whether you or someone you know has a dependence that may be moving more toward addiction:

Physical Signs

  • Being hyperactive or underactive (often as a result of substances)
  • Repetitive or rapid speech
  • Dilated pupils/red eyes
  • Excessive sniffling not due to a cold
  • Looking pale or malnourished
  • Changes in appetite
  • Physical hygiene changes, body odor, etc.

Behavioral Signs

  • Missing work or school
  • Conflicts in work/school
  • Missing important events
  • Isolative or secretive behavior with loved ones
  • Sleep issues
  • Legal problems
  • Relationship problems
  • Financial problems

Emotional Signs

  • Denial of a problem
  • Obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions
  • Defensiveness when confronted about problems with their behavior
  • Minimizing problems
  • Blaming others
  • Diversion or avoidance of talking about behavior
  • Odd or unusual behavior and attitudes (overly silly, overly angry, confused/disoriented, etc.)

The 3 Cs of Addiction

  • Loss of control over the amount and frequency of substance use or behavior
  • Craving/Compulsive using
  • Continued use even when experiencing adverse consequence

How to Get Help

If you, or someone you know seems to be struggling with any of the aforementioned substance use or compulsive behavior issues to the extent that it is significantly impacting the quality of their lives, it is important to try to find a way to get them the help that they need before it is too late. Society has long had a stigma against seeking support for issues, and because addiction is something that is also incredibly stigmatized, it can be difficult for people to accept that their addictive behavior is significantly impacting their lives to the point where treatment is needed. People often feel that being addicted to something means that there is something inherently flawed or wrong with them and can see addiction as a sign of weakness or the inability to manage their own impulses. Now more than ever, researchers and mental health professionals are trying to combat those beliefs as additional information has come out explaining the biology behind addiction. Addiction and the inability to control impulses is not related to a person’s character, but rather, is related to a person’s need for re-learning ways to manage stress, organize their time, and find alternative outlets for feelings of positivity and euphoria.

There are many different options available, depending on what addictive behaviors are currently impacting your life. Here are some of the treatment options available to help you manage addiction:


Therapy is often prescribed to help a person begin to understand the patterns of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have led to compulsive and addictive behaviors and how to retrain the brain to use healthy coping skills instead. This should be done with a therapist who specializes in addiction. There are many different ways to find a therapist, including within your insurance network as well as outside of it. There are now also options for online treatment in addition to in-office treatment, all with qualified and trained professionals.

Detox and Rehab

If a person is addicted to substances, particularly dangerous ones like opioids, they may need help from professionals to participate in a detoxification program where they can slowly and safely eliminate the substances from their system in order to begin recovery. Doing this in a supportive and structured environment like a rehabilitation center can be a great way to get a new start and have direct access to therapy and other medical professionals. These can be done in several ways, including:

Residential treatment: This is typically a live-in facility where you are away from any triggers for addiction while undergoing intensive, all day treatment for days to months at a time.
Day Treatment/Partial Hospitalization: This often involves living at home and participating in intensive treatment during most hours of the day

Outpatient treatment: This involves scheduling treatment around activities like work, and school and usually focuses on relapse prevention.

Sober living communities: These facilities, another form of relapse prevention, offer treatment similar to residential ones. They aid people struggling with addiction by helping them decrease the ability to relapse through stability, structure, and treatment provided where they live.

When you or someone you know is experiencing a significant amount of the signs mentioned above, it might be time to get support and assistance from a professional trained in addiction.

Shannon V. McHugh, PsyD

Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events

More For You