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Understanding Drug Addiction

There is a certain stereotype attached to the phrase ‘drug addiction’ and this is not a fair assumption. For many people battling with drugs is a daily nightmare and can ruin lives and relationships. In this article, we are going to explore what drug addiction truly means and what effects it might have on life.

When we talk about addiction we are referring to the action of doing something without control which as a consequence, could be harmful. Most commonly, we think about addiction as being related to substance abuse and alcohol but people can become addicted to just about anything. [1]

What’s The Difference Between Addiction And Dependence?

It is not surprising that people can become confused with addiction and dependence, often putting the two things under the same umbrella, and whilst the two are similar, there is a key difference.

Addiction is associated with a behaviour, the person finds the process of their actions to be rewarding and this is due to changes in a certain part of the brain. This part of the brain becomes stimulated when the action is which results in feelings of pleasure. [2]

Dependence is caused by changes in a different part of the brain, which is associated more with the body becoming used to a substance being inside it. This then creates the need for the body to have more of the substance.

In the case of drug dependency, this means that the person would have a physical need for the drug that they regularly take.

What Causes Addiction?

There are some outdated beliefs that recognise addiction as being a result of a lack of willpower or resistance to fighting. Doctors now recognise that there is a physical alteration in the brains of those who become addicted to something. [3]

Many now recognise the condition as falling into the category of disease and the changes that occur in the brain can induce strong cravings as well as significant distress when the addicted person cannot use their preferred substance.

Why Do Some People Become Addicted And Others Do Not?

Addiction is something that affects anyone, but there are certain factors that could play a part in some people more easily becoming addicted. If your parents struggle with addiction, you are more likely to be susceptible to it yourself.

Studies have suggested that those who have parents who are addicts could be up to 79% more likely to develop an addiction themselves. Scientists are yet to discover whether the reasons for this are due to something in your genetics or whether it is more to do with the environment, such as seeing your parents taking drugs as a child.

It has also been seen that those who suffer from mental health problems are more likely to become addicted to a substance.

Some people with mental health conditions try to find solace in drug-taking and this often spirals out of control into addiction. It has been suggested, however, that more intelligent people find that they have trouble with addiction.

If you are physically more receptive to the effects that drugs can bring and you react in a more sensitive way, this could lead more easily to addiction.

Why Do People Use Drugs?

There may be a variety of reasons that people turn to drugs. As we have already discovered, mental health patients may seek to find a release from their problems through the use of drugs.

Often times, people do not imagine that they would become addicted and begin taking drugs believing that it will always be a choice. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. [4]

With the increased feelings of pleasure and reward, the brain soon becomes ‘addicted’ and craves more of the substance for the user to remain content.

1. Biological Factors

Our genetic makeup may be responsible for drug use, with between 40% and 60% of addiction being related to biological factors. We have already looked at how being the child of an addict may be a cause of problems if it is related to genetics and this is something to be aware of if you have close relatives who struggle with addiction.

2. Environment

You may find yourself in a situation in life that promotes drug use. This might be trying to find a way to relieve the stresses of life or it could be due to those around you.

If you regularly spend time with other people who take drugs, you may be more easily inclined to try it for yourself. Peer pressure is a huge factor, especially for younger people.

Upbringing can play in part in the environmental factors of why people experiment with drugs. For example, those who experienced a lack of supervision as a child or neglect may be more susceptible to drug use.

What Happens In The Brain When Someone Takes Drugs?

We have learned that changes in the brain are responsible for addiction. Chemical balances inside your brain are interrupted when you take drugs. This can stop communication through the nerves as normal. [5]

On top of this, drugs are able to cause overstimulation in the brain, which can feel good and this is something that leads people to continue taking the drug.

Drugs also mimic the natural chemicals found in the body and this causes the brain to think that they are the real thing. This can lead to the body reacting in a different way.

Different types of drugs have different effects on the body. For example, cocaine has the ability to cause the nerve cells to release certain chemicals which leads to you feeling happy. Over time, these feelings become ‘addictive.’

The Pleasure Principle

As humans, we all desire feelings of pleasure. When the brain receives this feeling, it is likely to want more of the same. Drugs activate the ‘pleasure centre’ of the brain and large amounts of dopamine are released into your bloodstream.

The way in which you ingest the drugs will have an effect on how quickly the brain responds to their presence. This has a knock-on effect as to whether addiction develops quickly or gradually.

Smoking a drug will cause the brain to react more quickly than if it is taken in the form of a tablet. Therefore smoking drugs can cause addiction to occur more quickly. [6]

Development Of Tolerance

The more that you take a particular drug, the more your body becomes used to it, and the lower the effects might be. As the brain becomes used to the drug, it becomes more tolerant of it, this can happen with prescription drugs as well as those taken recreationally. There are three types of drug tolerance.

  • Chronic tolerance takes place over a long period of time such as weeks or months. The body becomes used to the presence of a drug and users will often up the dose or revert to different ways of taking the drug
  • Acute tolerance occurs when the user becomes tolerant over a shorter period of time. For instance, users of cocaine may find that the dose they had taken the first time maybe not enough the second or third time
  • Learned tolerance is when the user learns how to appear ‘normal’ whilst under the influence of a drug [7]

What Are The Signs Of Drug Addiction?

It is important to bear in mind that anyone can be affected by drug addiction no matter what their social standing, walk of life, or background.

Below we have listed some of the most common signs and symptoms that could indicate an addiction or dependence to drugs:

  • Being irritable or aggressive
  • Tiredness
  • Depression or low mood
  • A change in the personality of the user, this could include changes in the content they post on social media
  • Taking part in criminal activity
  • A shift in priorities
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in weight
  • Issues with sleep, either too little or too much
  • Changes in physical appearance such as issues with grooming
  • Changes in body odours [8]

What Are The Consequence Of Drug Addiction?

Many people, when beginning to take drugs may be under the impression that the activity will not have a negative impact on their lives. But there are many consequences that drug addiction can bring. Let’s take a closer look at some of these.

Drugs can have a very serious negative effect on your physical well being. For example, those who smoke drugs put themselves at higher risks of certain cancers such as mouth, throat, and lung cancer.

The use of drugs might also cause changes to your appetite resulting in unhealthy weight changes. Drugs alter heart rate and blood pressure which puts users in the higher risk category for things such as heart attacks and strokes.

One of the biggest negative physical impacts is the chance of overdosing on the drug. This could lead to severe brain damage or even death. Drug addiction is not limited to physical issues. There is a high risk of mental health problems arising from the use of drugs.

Using drugs can alter the way you perceive life. For example, you may notice heightened sexual pleasure and so develop the need to combine the two activities.

You will likely notice environmental changes as a result of drug addiction, these might be any of the following: [9]

  • Financial issues related to the money spent on drugs
  • Financial issues relating to being unable to keep up with bills and/or debts
  • A breakdown of personal relationships
  • Loss of work
  • Involvement in criminal activity, leading to possible prosecution

How To Help Someone Struggling With Drug Addiction

If someone you know is struggling with drug addiction, there are steps that you can take to help them get through this difficult time. These include:

  • Take advantage of your GP, they can offer you support as you offer your loved one support. In turn, this will better equip you to help
  • Try to understand their emotions, the person may not be ready to acknowledge that they have an issue, and understanding this can go a long way in supporting them. Gently steering them in the right direction will have more of an impact than being brash
  • Do not enable their behaviours. This means you should never give them money for drugs or purchase drugs for themselves. This can be difficult but is essential in getting the person through their problems
  • Don’t guilt the person, they probably feel bad enough already. Being compassionate and asking questions about how they feel and what you can do to help is a much more preferable approach
  • Help them to reintegrate healthy habits into their lives such as a good diet, a healthy sleep pattern and good personal hygiene
  • Consider helping them to get into a drug rehab program or visit their GP for help

Addictions We Treat

There are a variety of drugs, all of which have different effects on the body. However, there are treatments available for addiction to these drugs. We treat the following addictions:

  • Opioids are often used as pain relief – medications such as morphine fall into this category. Recreational drugs of this type include heroin
  • Depressants relax the brain by slowing it down and are include GHB and benzodiazepines
  • Stimulants increase brain activity making the user alert and attentive. You might recognise them as amphetamines or cocaine
  • Hallucinogens affect the senses and  are recreationally used in the form of ecstasy, LSD, and spice
  • Cannabis can affect memory and cause damage to the brain [10]

Can Drug Addiction Be Cured?

Drug addiction is not something that can be completed cured since relapse is always possible. However, the good news is that it can be treated and maintained. As long as the patient is willing to work hard, they can return to a normal life without drugs. It will require techniques and support for many years, possibly life long.

It is quite normal for those addicted to drugs to relapse and make several attempts at getting clean before they are successful. However, through detox, medication, therapies, and community support, drug addiction can and will be treated. Some of the treatment options are as follows:

  • Medications can be used to treat the withdrawal symptoms which may be experienced when coming off the drug
  • Behavioural therapies can be particularly useful and arm the patient with techniques to stay clean and in control
  • Therapies to avoid triggers can help to avoid relapse

Continued drug use can be detrimental to your health and even fatal. This condition can be managed by allowing the patient to regain control over their lives.

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