Drug addiction is a chronic illness that causes you to compulsively seek and use a drug, even when it is damaging to your well-being. The first time you take a drug may be through choice, but repeated use can result in changes in your brain. These changes decrease your self-control and make it harder for you to resist the urge to use drugs.
These brain changes can be hard to reverse or can even be permanent. Even after years of abstinence from a substance, these changes may still result in an increased desire to ‘relapse’ and use the substance again. However, drug addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed. Individualized treatment programs that treat co-occurring mental health disorders alongside addiction can lead to life-long recovery.
Drug abuse or substance abuse is when you use a drug, even when you know it is harmful to your health.
It includes taking illegal drugs and using prescription medicine differently from how your doctor prescribes. Taking illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine is substance abuse. So is taking prescription drugs at higher doses than your prescription requires or mixing them with another substance to enhance their effects. Taking prescription drugs recreationally to experience their pleasurable effects is also a form of substance abuse.
Drug abuse can cause long-term damage to your physical and mental health. It also increases the risk of an overdose, which is when you take more of a drug than your body can process. Overdosing is very dangerous and can be fatal. Overdose was the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States in 2019.
Substance abuse also causes devastating social damage. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that drug abuse leads to the spread of ‘hepatitis, HIV, fetal defects, crime, violence, and disruptions in home, workplace, and educational environments. It costs the United States billions of dollars every year.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies chronic drug abuse – when you abuse a drug over a long period – as a disorder/disease.
Substance abuse is when you use a drug in a harmful way. Addiction describes the compulsive seeking of that drug.
Substance abuse may not lead to addiction. You can abuse a substance without being addicted to it. You may be able to misuse cannabis for several months before developing an addiction.
But with highly addictive drugs, drug abuse can lead to addiction very quickly. You can develop a heroin addiction after using it only a few times.
Drugs are chemicals. When you use a drug, it travels into your brain and changes how your brain cells work, and even affects how nerve cells send, receive, and process information.
Different drugs affect brain cells in different ways. There are at least two main ways drugs work on the brain.
Drugs like heroin and marijuana have structures that look and act like neurotransmitters that naturally occur in our brains. The receptors in our brains think that they are normal cells and lock onto them. They begin to send messages throughout the brain as a normal neurotransmitter would. However, the drug does not work exactly like a normal neurotransmitter. The messages they send are abnormal and cause damage to our brains and bodies.
Other drugs work by affecting how nerve cells release dopamine. Dopamine is a natural neurotransmitter that results in pleasurable feelings. Drugs like cocaine cause nerve cells to release too much dopamine or stop the cells from recycling dopamine in the usual way. It results in exaggerated messages in the brain, disrupting communication channels. This causes problems in your brain and body.
Many drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, affect the brain’s reward system.
The reward system is a natural and healthy part of how the brain works. When you eat chocolate or go for a run, your nerve cells release a small amount of dopamine. This is what makes the activity pleasurable. It also encourages you to do the activity again.
When you use a drug, it affects this system. It releases large amounts of dopamine in response to the drug, producing feelings of euphoria. The brain connects this feeling with the drug and sends out strong urges to use the drug again. These urges can be incredibly intense.
Over time, the brain also begins to release dopamine in response to cues it associates with the drug. This could include seeing someone you take drugs with or being in a place you usually take them, and these cues become ‘triggers’ that produce a sudden urge to use the substance.
Repeated drug use over a long time can lead to dramatic changes over large areas of the brain, and in some cases, these changes are irreversible. This is why addiction is viewed as a chronic illness.
Physical dependence is when the body has physiologically adapted to the presence of a substance.
When you repeatedly use a drug, the brain begins to adapt to the increased dopamine. Neurons start making less dopamine or reduce the number of receptors. The amount of dopamine your brain naturally produces decreases, and you begin to feel depressed and unable to enjoy the things that normally give you pleasure. You still seek the drug to increase your dopamine levels and achieve that ‘high’, but you now need the drug just to feel normal; you are physically dependant.
If you have a physical dependence on a substance, you will experience a range of withdrawal symptoms when you stop using it. These can be uncomfortable and, in some cases, can be dangerous. They make it even more challenging to stop using a substance.
9 Signs and symptoms of drug addiction are:
5 Signs and symptoms of drug abuse are:
In recent years extensive research has explored the science of substance use disorder and the most effective treatment methods.
We now have extensive knowledge about how to treat addiction. Treating substance use disorder involves identifying the cues that your brain associates with a substance and developing tools to avoid or cope with them. It also requires treating co-occurring mental illness and any other underlying social or medical causes of your addiction.
At Cirque Lodge, we offer an individualized treatment program that combines behavioral therapies, experiential therapies, and support groups to help identify and overcome the causes of your addiction. The spectacular mountains surrounding our center are the perfect place to heal and be inspired to continue your recovery.