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Understanding Addiction and Drug Use

Many individuals don’t comprehend why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. Drug addiction is a complicated disease, and calling it quits usually takes more than good intentions or a solid will. Drugs alter the brain in ways that make giving up hard, even for those who want to. Thankfully, researchers know more than ever about how drugs impact the brain and have discovered treatments that can help people recover from drug addiction and lead productive lives.

Addiction
What Is drug addiction?

It’s common for an individual to relapse, but relapse doesn’t mean that treatment doesn’t work. As with other severe health conditions, treatment should be ongoing and should be adjusted based on how the patient behaves. Treatment plans need to be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s transforming needs.

What happens to the brain when a person uses drugs?

Addiction is a chronic disease defined by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or challenging to control, despite harmful repercussions. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain alterations that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their capability to resist intense urges to take drugs. These brain changes can be relentless, which is why drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease– people in recovery from drug use disorders are at enhanced risk for returning to drug use even after years of not consuming the drug.

As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine by making less of it and/or decreasing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This decreases the high that the person feels compared to the high they felt when first taking the drug– an effect known as tolerance. They might take more of the drug, trying to achieve the same dopamine high. It can also cause them to get less satisfaction from other things they once enjoyed, like food or social activities.

Most drugs influence the brain’s “reward circuit” by saturating it with the chemical messenger dopamine. This reward system regulates the body’s ability to feel pleasure and motivates a person to duplicate behaviors needed to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. This overstimulation of the reward circuit causes the extremely pleasurable “high” that can lead people to take a drug again and again.

Long-term use also causes changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well, affecting functions that include:

  • learning
  • judgment
  • decision-making
  • stress
  • memory
  • behavior

Despite being aware of these damaging outcomes, many people who use drugs continue to take them, which is the nature of addiction.

Why do some people become addicted to drugs while others don’t?

No one factor can forecast if a person will become addicted to drugs. A combination of elements influences risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the higher the chance that consuming drugs can lead to addiction.

For example:

  • Drug addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or challenging to control, despite dangerous consequences.
  • Brain adjustments that occur over time with drug use challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their capability to resist extreme urges to take drugs. This is why drug addiction is also a relapsing disease.
  • Relapse is the return to drug use after an attempt to stop. Relapse indicates the need for more or different treatment.
  • Most drugs impact the brain’s reward circuit by flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. This overstimulation of the reward circuit causes the intensely pleasurable “high” that leads people to take a drug again and again.
  • Over time, the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine, which reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high they felt when first taking the drug– an effect known as tolerance. They might take more of the drug, trying to obtain the same dopamine high.
  • No singular factor can predict whether a person will become addicted to drugs. A combination of genetic, environmental, and developmental factors influences risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.
  • Drug addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed.
  • More good news is that drug use and addiction are preventable. Teachers, parents, and health care providers have crucial roles in educating young people and preventing drug use and addiction.

As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction normally isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed. People who are recovering from an addiction will be at risk for relapse for years and potentially for their whole lives. Research shows that integrating addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy makes certain the best chance of success for most patients. Treatment approaches tailored to each patient’s drug use patterns and any co-occurring medical, mental, and social issues can lead to continuous recovery.

More good news is that drug use and addiction are preventable. Results from NIDA-funded research have revealed that prevention methods involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective for avoiding or reducing drug use and addiction. Although personal events and cultural factors affect drug use trends, when young people view drug use as hazardous, they tend to reduce their drug taking. Therefore, education and outreach are key in helping people comprehend the possible risks of drug use. Teachers, parents, and health care service providers have crucial roles in educating young people and preventing drug use and addiction.

Points to Remember.

  1. The genes that people are born with account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity, and the existence of other mental disorders may also affect risk for drug use and addiction.
  2. A person’s environment consists of many different influences, from family and friends to economic status and overall quality of life. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, early subjection to drugs, stress, and parental guidance can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of drug use and addiction.

Development. Genetic and environmental factors engage with critical developmental phases in a person’s life to affect addiction risk. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will advance to addiction. This is particularly problematic for teens. Because areas in their brains that control decision-making, judgment, and self-control are still developing, teens may be especially prone to risky behaviors, including trying drugs.

Author Ricardo A. Santiago

Ricardo A Santiago LMHC, MS currently serves as Clinical Director of Palm Beach Recovery Group. Mr Santiago holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication and a Master of Science degree in Counseling Psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

More posts by Ricardo A. Santiago

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