How much do you really know about substance abuse?
- Do you know the difference between a habit and an addiction?
- Why some drugs are addicting, while others aren’t?
- How drugs and alcohol affect the brain?
- Why some people get hooked and others don’t?
Not sure? Keep reading! Below you’ll find a list of FAQ related to addiction.
The basics: what is addiction?
Addiction, or substance use disorder, is a chronic illness marked by drug use that’s difficult for the user to control. Repeated drug use leads to changes in the brain, making the person crave the drug, and interferes with the ability to resist these urges. The drug abuse can become harmful. Sometimes an addict will lie, steal, prostitute, or become assaultive to get more drugs. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why people often relapse after being clean a time. It’s common for a person to relapse multiple times before full recovery. The term “Addiction” is about drug use, relapse, and all associated consequences.
Why are some chemicals addicting and others not?
Compared to non-addicting chemicals, drugs of abuse tend to
- cause an unusually pleasurable experience (few people abuse a drug that makes them miserable)
- grant this pleasurable experience immediately after the drugs are taken (no one abuses chemicals that take six days to take effect)
- make the person want to use again in the future (through multiple processes, including withdrawal symptoms and cravings to use).
What substances are typically abused?
There are three groups: (1) illegal substances like methamphetamine, cocaine, phencyclidine, heroin, Flakka, and others, (2) legal substances you buy at the store, like alcohol, tobacco, or (in some places) marijuana, and (3) prescription and over-the-counter medications like Adderall or OxyContin that become drugs of abuse when taken excessively or to get high. This article focuses on chemical substance abuse, although gambling, hoarding, hair-pulling, and other behaviors can be considered addiction if out of control.
Why do people get hooked on drugs and alcohol in the first place?
Most people don’t start using drugs because they want to become addicts. Here are some of the reasons why they end up getting hooked.
1–Genetic. Addiction runs in families. A person is more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol if their parents abused them, even if they were adopted out and raised in a different environment. There’s a biological, very unfair side to addiction. This means that some people have more of a tendency to become addicts than others.
2-Despair. Some people start using drugs to battle against worry, sadness, anger, fear, or pain. This is called “self-medicating.” Drugs can be effective for a short time, but the effect wears off, and then the person feels worse than they did before. The bad feeling can prompt them to use more and more, leading to tolerance, withdrawal, and addiction.
3-Prescription. Often enough, people start taking drugs innocently, having received a prescription of Oxycontin or Adderall from their doctor. They start by taking an extra pill from time to time. The dose escalates, they need more and more, and soon the person gets sick every time they try to stop.
4-Experimentation. College student might experiment with cocaine or get drunk on the weekends with their friends, not meaning to make it a daily thing. The addict doesn’t know that they are the one who’ll get hooked potentially for the rest of their life.
5-The high. Drugs and alcohol make you feel good. They take away boredom. They give a person something to look forward to. The problem is that the good feeling doesn’t last. Most drugs have a withdrawal syndrome, or the addict misses the high when it isn’t around. Life becomes boring without it. The person then uses the drug just to avoid feeling bad.
What’s the difference between a habit and an addiction?
“Habit” and “addiction” aren’t clinical terms, but in general, an addiction happens when you lose control over the drug.
Habit – Habit is occasional use. A person with a habit can choose to stop at any time and do so successfully. There is no psychological or physical component driving their use, and they don’t have physical withdrawal when they stop using. Also, the use of the drug or alcohol doesn’t interfere with their life.
Addiction-This is when a person isn’t able to control their drug use. They can’t stop using even when they want to. There is a strong psychological or physical force driving them to keep using: addiction is often associated with dependence on the drug or tolerance to its effect. The user needs higher and higher amounts to receive the same effect, and they often experience withdrawal when they stop. In addiction, the use of the drug or alcohol also leads to serious problems with health and/or at home, work, school, and socially.
There is no fine line between habit and addiction. Using cocaine once a month could be considered a habit or an addiction, depending on the consequences. Often a habit develops into an addiction.
What are the signs and symptoms of someone with a drug problem?
People with an addiction might:
- Use or need more drugs than expected to get the effect they want
- Be unable to cut down or stop, even if they want to
- Can’t stop, even if it’s clearly a problem or becomes dangerous
- Spend a lot of time devoted to the drug (hours a day getting, using, and recovering from use)
- Have intense cravings to use
- Give up or be unable to manage important non-drug-related activities because of substance use (like work, home, and school activities)
- Continue using despite social, work, and recreational problems
- Continue using despite health problems
- Withdraw from the drug when they stop
Addicts often start acting differently than they used to act. They lose interest in their normal activities, change their friends, spend a lot of time alone, get moody, sleep strange hours, miss crucial appointments, and have problems with family relationships. They might get into trouble with the law over drug use or criminal acts. At times they’ll appear altered by drugs, either energetic and speedy or slowed down.
What is relapse?
An addict who’s been clean and sober can fall back and start using again. This is called a relapse. Relapse is often triggered by a troubling life event, where the person feels desperate and deals with the emotion in the easiest way they know, by getting high or drinking. Relapses are frequent and normal and happen to a lot of people; it takes practice to learn how to live without drugs. The longer a person is clean, the less likely they’re going to relapse. Typically the first year of abstinence from drugs and alcohol is considered early recovery.
Why is it so hard to get over drugs?
Stopping drugs is like trying to lose weight. The doctor says you need to stop munching on those chocolates and cookies, eat smaller portions, avoid all your favorite foods, and go to the gym every day. It’s easy to hear but difficult to do. Even if you lose a few pounds, it doesn’t take much to slip up and gain the weight right back. Recovery from drugs is very similar. It’s a day-to-day struggle.
But it’s tougher than that. Most addicts have been using for years, and the drug is their major coping skill, best friend, and maiden. They don’t know how to live without her. To stay sober and clean, they must tolerate unwanted emotion, and they have no practice. Free of drugs, they must find new ways to deal with the woes life throws in their direction. Yet abstinence from drugs brings on all sorts of new challenges: dealing with the grief and lost dreams, the guilt over what they’ve done to others, the conflicted relationships with their family, the need to wipe clean the past and replace all using friends and hangouts, and the temptation to escape it by relapsing. Many addicts say it’s harder to quit than keep using.
How does addiction affect the brain?
Drugs affect the brain’s reward system by overwhelming it with a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine intensifies pleasure and motivates the addict to keep using. As the person continues to use the drug over time, the body starts to make less dopamine and reduces the high. This means the user needs to use more of the drug to get the same high. Eventually they take so much that they get sick every time they stop.
Long-term use of drugs might also cause problems with:
- Learning (ability to process new information)
- Memory (ability to access facts and memories)
- Judgment (insight, decision-making)
- Mood (depression, anxiety, irritability)
- Behaviors (criminal, irrational, impulsive)
- Perception changes (hallucinations, paranoia)
Addicts who’ve been doing drugs for a long time can have changes in their personality. They might lack empathy or do nasty things. The long-term effects and changes in personality can last for months after they stop using. Some substances, like methamphetamines and inhalants, can cause permanent changes.
Why do some people become addicted and others don’t?
It’s not always clear why some people are more susceptible than others. Risk of becoming an addict seems to be linked to various factors, including having a mental illness apart from addiction, being raised in a drug-friendly setting, younger age of first use, and having a family history of substance use. Environment can also make a big difference, including bad quality of life, being unemployed, and other stressors.
Can drug addiction really be treated?
Substance use disorder can’t be cured, but it is treatable. While people who have recovered from an addiction are at risk for relapse for years and maybe for the rest of their lives, many people do stay clean and sober in the long-run. A person with an addiction can go on to live an amazing life.
Research shows that the best treatment for addiction is all-encompassing. It must be tailored to each individual and target co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social problems, just as it targets recovery from drugs. There are medications that can help with opiate and alcohol problems, but learning coping skills and making life changes is key. The addict needs to rewrite their story. This is a long journey.
Most people with addiction can’t navigate the course on their own. To be successful, to become sober and clean for the long term, they need professional help, as well as the support of friends and family.
How can friends and family help?
Your loved one might want treatment, or they might not be ready. Unfortunately you can’t make that decision for them. Typically rehab doesn’t work when someone doesn’t want it. However, friends and family can show they care, and that can help a person stick with treatment even when it’s difficult.
When a loved one has a problem with drugs, consider the following recommendations:
- Educate yourself about addiction. Read everything you can, and familiarize yourself with resources in your community. When they ask for help, tell them about the options and encourage them to get treatment.
- Attend Al–Anon and co-dependency meetings. These are support groups for families and concerned friends of people with addiction.
- Don’t help them use drugs. Don’t enable their addiction. This means don’t give them large sums of money, let them talk obsessively about the joys of using, make excuses for them, bail them out of jail repeatedly, or pay for their mistakes.
- Help them get and stay off drugs. Offer rides to doctor’s appointments, support groups, twelve-step programs, and rehab. Help them avoid places and people that could trigger them to use again. Help them find things to take their mind off of drugs. Talk to them about their feelings and what they’re doing to stay clean. Congratulate them for each new day sober.
- Help them with basic needs. If affordable and reasonable and within your control, help them find a place to live. Show them how to look for a job. If they can’t afford groceries, consider giving them small gift cards to a local supermarket.
- Encourage them to seek professional help for mental and physical problems. It’s hard to beat something as big as an addiction when you’re struggling with depression, unstable diabetes, or chronic pain. Encourage them to get treatment and take their medications.
- If they’re actively using, explore all options. If appropriate, consider doing an intervention to help motivate them to pursue treatment. Show them they have a future worth living for. Treatment may include inpatient detoxification, residential rehabilitation, outpatient substance abuse care, a mental health program, and a twelve-step program.
For more information on caring for someone with an addiction, click here.
Where can someone with a substance abuse problem find help?
If you or someone you care about has a drug problem, it’s important you look for help. There are many recovery resources available. Consider joining a community support group like a twelve-step program, contacting your local mental health care facility or hospital, or calling1-800-662-HELP (4357). State facilities often have free services available for the treatment of substance abuse. Check online to learn more about residential rehabs and other resources in your area. The Salvation Army often has a free program. Also, talk to your doctor about medications that can be helpful for addiction. The important thing is that you don’t give up.
For help if you or a loved one feels suicidal, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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