Understanding Drug & Alcohol Addiction
Addiction is often misunderstood and pervasive, but with science-backed evidence and research, both patients and medical professionals have more and more resources to support them in the journey toward recovery.
What is Drug or Alcohol Addiction?
Although it’s been thought of in the past as a moral issue, addiction is actually a chronic medical condition that is caused by changes in the functioning of the brain, characterized by psychological and physical dependence. The behavior that drives addiction is compulsive and difficult to control. It causes people to seek drugs or alcohol, despite negative effects on their relationships, career, health, safety, and more.
How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?
When people do something they enjoy, their brain activates a reward system – the brain releases dopamine, which triggers feelings of pleasure. For those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, the use of an addictive substance causes their brains to release unusually large surges of dopamine, giving them exaggerated pleasure responses. The brain learns to associate the drug with this euphoria, causing people to crave and repeat the experience.
With repeated exposure to this unnaturally elevated amount of substance-induced dopamine release, the brain attempts to restore normal physiological threshold by reducing the production of dopamine AND decreasing the number of dopamine receptors. The net effect of this change in the brain is less sensitivity to dopamine.The result is that people who are addicted lose the ability to enjoy activities that once brought them pleasure, while they experience escalating cravings for the substance they abuse.
Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
Each person’s experience of addiction is unique, but there are common features of the addictive process. Some of the symptoms to look for are:
- A lack of control. People use the substance more often, in greater amounts, even if they want to cut back or stop.
- An unusual amount of time spent. A considerable amount of time is invested in acquiring and using the substance.
- Cravings. People experience an intense drive to drink or use drugs.
- Lack of responsibility. The substance becomes more important than relationships, jobs, bills, or other obligations.
- Loss of interest. Things that once brought a person joy become less important and are neglected.
- Escalating use. Despite worsening life conditions and increasing danger, people use larger amounts of the addictive substance.
- Tolerance. Greater and greater amounts of the substance are needed to produce the same or similar effect.
- Withdrawal. Not using the substance causes intense physical or emotional discomfort.
WHY DOES ADDICTION IMPACT SOME AND NOT OTHERS?
Although there is no guarantee that one person will experience addiction and another won’t, there are some factors that increase the risk. Genetics is thought to account for 40 to 60% of a person’s odds of developing a drug or alcohol addiction. The environment also plays a role, with issues such as physical and sexual abuse, economic stress, peer pressure, and poor quality of life increasing a person’s risk. The earlier someone is exposed to drugs or alcohol the more likely they are to become addicted.
An important factor that is sometimes overlooked is mental health. People who have a mental health disorder are more likely to develop an addiction than those without.