Most people unaffected by addiction are unable to understand how or why individuals become substance abusers. Often people assume that they lack basic self-control or grew up on the streets involved in gangs. But the truth is much more complex. Substance abuse and addiction is a disease, and like all other diseases, it has risk factors. Not everyone is able to soar through life unfazed by tragedies and triumphs.
Drug use changes the way the brain responds to stimuli, specifically pain. For many that turn to substances for an escape, life may have become overwhelming and seemingly unmanageable. Many studies and reports have helped the medical community understand more about how drugs affect the brain, and have found treatments to help people regain control and live sober.
Substance addiction can be described as compulsive drug seeking behaviors that over time become impossible for the individual to manage without intervention. These behaviors often have far reaching consequences for the abuser and their families. The initial involvement with illicit drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol was likely voluntary. Addictions often start with seemingly innocent interactions and build up to recreational use, and eventually to regular and compulsive drug use.
Addiction leaves recovering users at a greatly increased risk of relapse as the urge to begin using never truly leaves. Recovery is a lifelong process, and users may relapse more than once while trying to regain control. These relapses do not mean that drug rehab and alcohol treatment did not work. As addiction is a lifelong disease without a cure, ongoing treatment is key to achieving long-term sobriety. These treatment plans often require modification as the individual’s needs change.
Drug Addiction’s Effect on the Brain
Our brains are wired to experience and filter pleasure and pain differently, and the pleasure center of our brains responds to positive activities and experiences by creating a natural ‘high’. The high we experience is the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter chemical. The high that comes can be intensely pleasurable during illicit drug use, causing the individual to seek the same high over and over again.
As the user continues to abuse these substances, the dopamine levels drop when the brain compensates for the repeated influx of drugs. The result is that the addict will increase their drug use in order to get the same high they experienced the first time. The cycle continues until the natural dopamine released when enjoying food or other once pleasurable activities ceases to satisfy the expectations. Everything starts feeling flat and normal emotions are more and more difficult to balance.
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Why Some Become Easily Addicted
There is not one single risk factor that predetermines whether one person will become a substance abuser and another person will not. That said, there are risk factors associated with drug addiction and the more risk factors an individual has, the greater the likelihood that recreational drug use can lead to full-blown addiction.
There are three main components that can affect substance addiction and many, if not all, users share these traits. The first is biological. Genetic links with substance abuse appear to influence a person’s risk for some sort of addiction over the course of their lifetime and this risk appears to be close to half if biological. It is important to note that these ‘addictive tendencies’ may not find their roots in illicit drug abuse or alcohol addiction. Instead, the individual may simply be more prone to addictive behaviors and poor impulse control. This might manifest itself as an addiction to video games, or to social media. But it also might well result in an addiction to food, drugs, or alcohol.
A second risk factor is environment. Environmental influences can play a major role in an individual’s likelihood of addiction. Everything from negative peer circles to unhealthy family dynamics to physical abuse can add to the chance of drug use. Any stresses that an individual must sort through as a direct result of their immediate circumstances will effect choices.
The third risk factor is child development. This has come more to light in recent years as we continue to gain greater understanding of early brain development. When a child is exposed to drugs while still in the womb, the changes in brain growth and neuron wiring often become apparent as the child enters their early teenage years. The ability to make decisions, develop self-control, understand risk, and make judgment calls are proven to be depressed in children exposed while unborn. It seems that they become ‘rewired’ for addictive behaviors before they have even had a chance to take their first breath.
Prevention vs Cure for Addiction
There are many diseases that we are all familiar with that have no known cure to date. Some of these are Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. Addiction is much like these treatable, yet incurable diseases. Recovering addicts will never enjoy complete restoration psychologically or biologically. The changes that occur with regular drug use permanently change brain chemistry and forever alter neuron transmissions.
The main focus for drug addicts in recovery is sobriety. Every activity, for work and for leisure, will need to be carefully chosen to limit exposure to dangerous situations that might invite relapse. This will be a lifelong process. While this might seem discouraging, it should also offer hope. Sober living is attainable for most working to achieve it. There is freedom that comes from living within the strict confines that true addiction recovery demands. We often hear from clients who have been dealing with daily urges to return to drugs that the greatest accomplishment is choosing to be sober, one day at a time.
Those who have successful long-term addiction recovery have one thing in common: a commitment to transparency with family members, therapists, and counselors. Having a strong support system is central to sober living.
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