Understanding Drug Addiction

Man Struggling with Drug Addiction For a general definition we can say that drug addiction is a chronically relapsing brain disease. It is characterized by the behaviors of compulsive drug seeking and using. The relative addiction of each drug is different in terms of its chemical compound and also varies from person to person. For example, codeine requires more exposure to form an addiction than does cocaine or heroin. One person may also be more psychologically or genetically predisposed to addiction than another, and this may not be known until after the person is addicted and in need of treatment. Learn more about the signs of drug abuse here.

Addiction to a drug usually has two separate components: a psychological and a physical dependency. From a psychological standpoint it is being used to kill or mask pain, to feel pleasure, or to relieve stress. From a physical perspective, a drug addict uses to feel "normal". Over time, the body has become so used to the presence of substances that without it the person will begin to have withdrawal symptoms. Substance abuse is different from drug addiction. Learn more about the common symptoms of both problems.

What is Drug Abuse Really?

Drug abuse and addiction are two different but related concerns. Abusing drugs does not necessarily mean a person is addicted. A drug addiction is formed when changes are made to the brain in ways that fosters the need for constant use. Habitual abuse of illicit or prescription medications is an indicator of addiction. Also it brings with it a number of other physical, emotional, social and psychological changes and dependencies.

So why do some people become addicted with drug abuse while others don't? There isn't one single indication that we can look at to determine this. Research has shown three common factors that are often attributed to becoming addicted. These are genetics, social environment and age. Studies indicate that adolescents are more likely to develop a drug addiction with abuse during the critical stages of brain development.

Illicit Substances

Substances that contribute to drug abuse can vary, but usually the public thinks of the more illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. All of them have different interactions with the brain and body. Stimulant drugs heighten senses and increase body functions (cocaine and methamphetamine). Depressants do the opposite by slowing down the system and body functions. Common depressant drugs are heroin and prescription painkillers. Marijuana and similar substances are called cannabinoids and affect different aspects of the limbic system (memory and cognitive functions).

The following table breaks down a number of illicit or street drugs that are commonly abused. Also listed are common street names and its classification.

Drug Name Common Street Names Classification
Cocaine coke, blow, sugar, snow Stimulant
Crack (rock cocaine) rock, crumbs, hail, gravel Stimulant
Crystal Meth ice, glass, crystal Stimulant
Heroin H, junk, tar, smack, dope Depressant
LSD acid, blue heaven, cubes Psychoactive
Marijuana weed, grass, mary jane, bud Cannabinoid
MDMA ecstasy, molly Psychoactive
Mephedrone bath salts Stimulant
Methamphetamine crank, chalk, meth, speed Stimulant
PCP angel dust Psychoactive
Synthetic Marijuana spice, k2, black mamba, joker Cannabinoid

What Causes Addiction to a Drug?

Drug Addiction is a Difficult Struggle There are many different ideas and concepts when it comes to drug addiction. It is generally accepted addiction is biological in nature and is widely regarded as a brain disease or malady. This disease is believed to be created by a changing of the brain's reward functions. The part of the brain that is affected is responsible for behaviors such as eating, exercise and social interaction. When the chemical hits this portion of the brain, known as the mesolimbic dopamine system, excessive levels of dopamine are released causing a general feeling of euphoria, or otherwise called a "high". Over an extended period of time, these short-term "highs" can create long-term effects. As the brain experiences these periods of greater than normal dopamine release, the resultant brain reactions become more severe.

Continued use of the drug causes a person to use more and more in order to have the same level of pleasure, until the use of the drug dominates the normal day-to-day life experiences. Finally, the drug completely takes over the person's rational thought processes, and life cannot continue without it. Within drug addiction treatment, cognitive and behavioral therapies are used in addressing these changes to the brain's chemical structure to get that individual back to a level of normalcy.

Is Drug Addiction a Mental Disorder?

Yes it is. The abuse of illicit drugs and pain medications changes the way the brain works and reacts. These fundamental changes create behaviors of drug seeking and using that takes precedence over normal functioning. The inability to control these compulsions becomes a chronic condition, like other similar mental health disorders. To this end diagnostic criteria for addiction have changed and such diagnoses are referred to as substance use disorders. It is very common for those with addictions to have co-occurring mental disorders as well.