Understanding addiction

Some people are able to use recreational or prescription drugs without experiencing negative consequences or addiction. But for many others, substance use can cause problems at work, perhaps, at school and in relationships with other people, becoming isolated.

If you are concerned about drug use by you or a friend or family member, it is important to know that help is available. Learning the nature of drug abuse and addiction, how it develops, how it looks and why, will give you a better understanding of the problem and how you should treat it.

What is addiction?

The word “addiction” is derived from a Latin term for “enslaved by” or “tied to.” Anyone who has struggled to overcome an addiction or has tried to help someone who tries to do it – understand why in addition to the difficulty involved.

Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests itself in three different ways: cravings for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continued use of it despite adverse consequences.

For many years, experts believed that only alcohol and powerful drugs can cause addiction. Neuroimaging technologies and more recent studies, however, have shown that certain pleasant activities, such as gambling, shopping or sex, can also co-opt the brain.

Although a standard US diagnostic manual describes multiple addictions, each linked to a specific substance or activity, there is a consensus that these can represent multiple expressions of an underlying process of the common brain.

The use, abuse of drugs and addiction in simple words

People experiment with drugs for many different reasons. Many try drugs out of curiosity, to have a good time, because friends take them, or in an effort to improve athletic performance or facilitate another problem, such as stress, anxiety or depression. The use does not automatically lead to abuse, and there is no specific limit to when drug use moves from casual to problematic. This limit varies by person. Drug abuse and addiction is not so much about the amount of substance consumed or how often it is consumed, it only has to do with the consequences of drug use. No matter how many times or how little someone is consuming, if the use of these substances is causing problems in your life: at work, school, school, or in your relationships, you are likely to have a problem with addiction to drugs

Why do some people become addicted, while others do not?

As with many other conditions and diseases, vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person. Genes, the environment, mental health, family and social factors play a role in addiction. Risk factors that increase vulnerability include:

  • Family history of addiction
  • Abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences in childhood
  • Mental disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • The early use of drugs
  • The way of administration of smoking or injecting a medication can increase its addictive potential

New perspectives on a common problem

No one starts with the intention of developing an addiction, but many people get caught in their trap. Consider the latest statistics:

  • Almost one in 10 people in the world are addicted to alcohol or other drugs.
  • More than two thirds of people are addicted to alcohol.
  • The three main drugs that cause addiction are marijuana, opiates (narcotics) to relieve pain and cocaine.

In the 1930s, when researchers began investigating the cause of addictive behavior, they believed that people who develop addictions were in some way morally wrong or lacking willpower. The addiction was overcome by involving punishments or, alternatively, encouraging them to gather the will to break the habit.

The scientific consensus has changed since then. Today we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes the structure and function of the brain. Just as cardiovascular disease damages the heart and diabetes damages the pancreas, addiction kidnaps the brain. This happens when the brain goes through a series of changes, starting with the recognition of pleasure and ending with a tendency towards compulsive behavior.

Drug addiction and the brain

Addiction is a complex disorder characterized by compulsive drug use. While each drug produces different physical effects, all abused substances share one thing in common: repeated use can alter the way the brain works.

  • Taking a recreational drug causes an increase in brain dopamine levels, which cause feelings of pleasure. Your brain remembers these feelings and wants to repeat them.
  • If you become an addict, the use of the abused substance acquires the same meaning as survival behaviors, such as eating and drinking.
  • Changes in the brain interfere with your ability to think clearly, good judgment, control your behavior and feel normal without drugs.
  • No matter if you are addicted to inhalants, heroin, Xanax, or Vicodin, the uncontrollable craving to use a substance becomes more important than anything else, including family, friends, career, and even your own health and happiness.
  • The need to use a substance is so strong that your mind finds many ways to deny or rationalize addiction. You can drastically underestimate the amount of medications you are taking, how much it affects your life, and the level of control you have over drug use.

How is addiction developed?

The brain records all pleasures in the same way, even if they originate from a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter or a good meal. In the brain pleasure has a distinct signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a group of nerve cells located below the cerebral cortex. The release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens is consistently linked to the pleasure that neuroscientists refer to as the brain’s pleasure center.

All drugs of abuse, from nicotine to heroin, cause a particularly powerful surge of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The probability that the use of a drug or participation in a rewarding activity will lead to addiction is directly related to the speed with which the release of dopamine is promoted, the intensity of that release, and the reliability of that version.

Even taking the same medication through different administration methods can influence how likely it is to lead to addiction. Smoking a drug or injecting it intravenously, instead of swallowing it like a pill, for example, usually produces a faster and stronger dopamine signal and is more likely to lead to drug abuse.

Addictive drugs provide direct access to the brain’s gratification system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The hippocampus establishes memories of this rapid sense of satisfaction.

People who experiment with drugs continue to use them because substances make them feel good, or stop them from feeling bad. In many cases, however, there is a very fine line between regular use and drug abuse and addiction. Very few people are able to recognize when they have crossed that line. While the frequency or amount of drugs consumed by themselves does not constitute an addiction, they can often be indicators of drug-related problems.

  • Problems can sometimes surprise you, when your drug use gradually increases over time. Smoking a joint with friends on the weekend, or taking ecstasy, or cocaine at a party from time to time, for example, can switch to using drugs a couple of days a week and then every day. Gradually, getting and using the drug becomes increasingly important to you.
  • If the drug responds to an important need, hunt once more need it. For example, you can take medicine to calm yourself down if you feel anxious or stressed, to energize yourself if you feel depressed, or that you feel safer in social situations. Or maybe you’ve started using prescription medications to cope with panic attacks or relieve chronic pain, for example. Until you find alternative, healthier methods for overcoming these problems, drug use is likely to continue.
  • Similarly, if you use drugs to fill a gap in your life, you are at greater risk of crossing the occasional use line towards drug abuse and addiction. To maintain a healthy balance in your life, you have to have other positive experiences, to feel good without using drugs.
  • When drug abuse takes over, it is possible to face problems such as being late for work or school, your work performance may deteriorate progressively, and you begin to neglect social or family obligations. Your ability to stop using drugs will eventually be compromised. What started as a voluntary option has become a physical and psychological necessity.

The good news is that with the right treatment and support, you can counteract the negative effects of drug use and regain control of your life. The first obstacle is to recognize and admit that you have a problem, or listen to your loved ones who are often better able to see the negative effects that drug use is having on your life.

How to stop addictions

Recognizing that you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery, this is something that has enormous value and strength. Facing your addiction without minimizing the problem or making excuses can be scary and overwhelming, but recovery is within reach. If you are ready to make a change and are willing to seek help, you can overcome your addiction and build a satisfying and drug-free life.

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