Drug addiction is a chronic and relapsing brain disease that is marked by compulsive drug seeking and use. Although addiction stigma suggests that addicted individuals simply lack morals, principles, or the willpower to stop using drugs, these substances actually change the structure and function of the brain, making it extremely difficult for a person to stop using drugs on their own.
When a person first begins using drugs, they may experience pleasurable effects such as euphoria or a “high” that occurs after using. This is a result of the brain’s reward circuit being overstimulated and flooded with dopamine. These pleasurable feelings encourage them to continue using drugs, despite the harmful consequences.
Over time, the drug use becomes uncontrollable and the person develops a physical dependence on the substance, needing more and more of it to feel good or to function normally. Eventually, the person begins to prioritize their drug use above all other things, including family, friends, employment, and activities they used to enjoy. They also isolate themselves so they can continue fueling their addiction without feeling like they are being judged by others who voice their concern.
Drug addiction causes severe physical, social, and psychological damage and can even result in overdose or death.
Addiction does not discriminate based on age, sex, race, or ethnicity—anyone can become addicted to drugs. However, not everyone who abuses alcohol or drugs will end up becoming addicted to the substance. Certain risk factors increase the likelihood that substance abuse will lead to addiction.
- Biology – Studies show about half of a person’s vulnerability to addiction can be attributed to genetic factors, but gender and ethnicity also play a role in influencing substance abuse. If a person has a parent or close family member who is addicted to drugs, he or she is also more likely to suffer from addiction.
- Early drug use – A young person’s brain is still developing, impacting their ability to make sound decisions and practice self-control. For these reasons, the earlier a person begins using drugs, the more likely they are to develop an addiction later in life.
- Environment – A person’s environment can have a major influence on the development of an addiction at some point in their life. Economic status, quality of life, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, and lack of parental guidance are all environmental factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing an addiction.
- Development – Adolescence is a critical developmental stage where susceptibility to addiction may be at its highest. The brain of an adolescent is still maturing, and a young person’s self-control and decision-making skills may not be strong enough to resist peer pressure or the allure of alcohol and drugs.
Although no single factor can predict a person’s future drug use habits, the more risk factors a person has, the more likely they are to become addicted to drugs.
Many cases of substance abuse begin when people use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder can be so debilitating that sufferers may be willing to try anything to relieve their symptoms. People who have experienced trauma in their past may also abuse drugs or alcohol as a way to suppress painful memories.
Unfortunately, substance abuse can actually make mental health disorders even worse, and it can deepen the psychological issues associated with trauma. As the cycle of drug or alcohol abuse continues, it doesn’t take long for a full-blown addiction to form.
The motivation behind a person’s drug use will vary depending on his or her situation, but in most cases, a person will start using drugs for one or more of the following reasons:
- To cope with life issues. Stress, trauma, depression, and anxiety are all common reasons people resort to drug use. Drugs temporarily mask the pain and distress associated with these issues and provide an escape from reality.
- To fit in. Drug use often begins as an effort to fit in with a certain social group or to make friends. This is very common with teens and young college-age adults.
- To improve their performance. Some individuals may find that certain substances increase their performance academically, socially, sexually, or athletically. They may start using drugs primarily for this reason but may very easily become addicted.
- To feel good. Many drugs and addictive substances stimulate the brain’s reward circuit, creating pleasurable feelings and motivating the person to repeat the behavior again.
According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20.1 million people ages 12 or older have a substance use disorder. Among those individuals, 37 percent are addicted to illicit drugs, 75 percent are addicted to alcohol, and 12 percent are addicted to both illicit drugs and alcohol.
How Does Substance Abuse Develop into Addiction?
The path toward addiction begins with chemical changes in the brain. When a person takes a drug, the brain’s reward circuits are deluged with a flood of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The excessive stimulation of the brain’s reward system causes feelings of intense pleasure that drive individuals to use the drug again and again. Over time, the brain adjusts to the surges of dopamine by producing less of it naturally and even reducing the response to it. This makes the effects of a drug less intense than the initial high and indicates that a tolerance has formed. A person who has developed a tolerance might find themselves taking the drug more often or in higher doses, attempting to recreate those early highs. Once the drug-seeking behavior has become compulsive, an addiction has formed.
2016 survey results published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that over the past year:
- 37.6 million people used marijuana
- 18.7 million people misused prescription psychotherapeutic drugs
- 11.5 million people misused prescription opioid pain relievers
- 5.1 million people used cocaine
- 4.9 million people used hallucinogens
- 1.7 million used inhalants
- 1.4 million used methamphetamines
- 948,000 used heroin
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), other commonly abused drugs in the United States include:
- Ambien (Zolpidem)
- Ativan (Lorazepam)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
- Halcion (Triazolam)
- Librium (Chlordiazepoxide)
- Valium (Diazepam)
- Xanax (Alprazolam)
- Dilaudid (Hydromorphone)
- Vicodin/Lortab/Lorcet (Hydrocodone)
- Demerol (Meperidine)
- Dolophine/Methadose (Methadone)
- Duramorph/Roxanol (Morphine)
- Opana (Oxymorphone)
- OxyContin/Percodan/Percocet (Oxycodone)
Treatment for Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Effective treatment for drug addiction typically requires long-term rehab and several episodes of ongoing treatment. Most often this includes medically assisted detox, residential drug and alcohol rehab, intensive outpatient treatment, sober living, and aftercare programs.
Participation in the various episodes or steps of treatment is ideal because each step is designed to provide the unique amount and type of support that is needed most during that stage of recovery.
Although there is no quick and easy “cure” for addiction, individuals can overcome their drug addiction with an evidence-based drug and alcohol rehab program. These treatment programs are typically offered at an addiction treatment center for 30, 60, or 90 days, but long-term rehab programs of 90 days or more are associated with more positive treatment outcomes.
Drug and alcohol rehab programs are designed to provide the following services:
- Help the person accept the fact that they have an illness.
- Address the root causes of the person’s addiction.
- Learn and practice effective life skills and coping strategies to prevent future relapse.
- Heal damaged relationships in the person’s life.
- Learn how to build healthy relationships.
- Maintain long-term or lifelong abstinence from all addictive substances
Although drug addiction is very prevalent in the United States, an astounding 93.1 percent of addicted individuals did not receive treatment for their substance use disorder in 2016.
If you or a loved one is addicted to drugs, there is hope for you to begin a new life that is free from substance abuse and addiction. It all starts with a phone call to Nova Recovery Center.
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