What is Drug Addiction?

Drug addiction – also called substance use disorder – involves an inability to control or moderate the use of substances, despite experiencing negative consequences as a result.

It occurs when a person uses drugs excessively and repeatedly, to the point that they become dependent on them and feel they cannot function without them.

Drug addiction is a mental illness and a complex, chronic brain disorder characterised by:

  • compulsive drug-seeking
  • continued drug use despite harmful consequences
  • long-lasting changes to the structure and functioning of the brain
  • physical withdrawal symptoms if drug use is reduced or stopped.

Drug addiction often starts with experimental use of recreational drugs in social situations, but it can also begin with exposure to prescription (or over-the-counter) medications. The drugs may be used (or misused) to produce pleasure, alleviate stress and / or alter or escape reality.

With continued use, our ability to exert self-control becomes seriously impaired. Brain imaging studies, from people addicted to drugs, show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical for decision-making, judgment, memory, learning and behaviour control. These changes alter the way our brain works, leading to the compulsive and destructive behaviours often associated with drug addiction.

If left untreated, drug addiction can quickly become a very serious problem, affecting all areas of our life. It can lead to devastating affects on our work, family life, relationships, health and overall quality of life. Fatal overdose is also possible with many commonly used drugs.

It is very common for co-occurring mental health disorders to be present alongside drug addiction, such as:

  • anxiety disorders
  • moderate to severe depression
  • personality disorders
  • mood disorders
  • schizophrenia.

In many cases, the symptoms of the mental health disorder appear first, and drugs are used to ‘treat’ those symptoms – self-medication. In other cases, the drug addiction comes first and mental health issues develop as a result of chronic drug use – as the drugs alter brain structure and function over time.

There is no known cure for drug addiction, but it can be managed and treated. Evidence-based treatment programmes – under specialist supervision – significantly improve our chances of making a full recovery and regaining control of our lives.

Where co-occurring disorders are present, a dual diagnosis treatment programme will increase the quality and effectiveness of recovery and prevention of relapse. Research has shown that it is important to treat co-occurring disorders simultaneously.

What Types of Drugs Can People Become Addicted to?

One of the reasons that drug addiction is so complex is because people can become addicted to such a wide variety of substances, and their effects on each individual can vary.

The most commonly used drugs, which people can become addicted to, include:

Depressants (e.g. alcohol, benzodiazepines, tranquilisers, Xanax, Valium)
Depressants are designed to slow down the central nervous system and help us feel calm and relaxed. The negative effects of depressants include drowsiness, slurred speech, poor coordination, and an inability to make informed decisions. Heavy abuse can cause major respiratory problems and liver damage.

Stimulants (e.g. amphetamines, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy/MDMA)
Stimulants increase mental alertness, attention and energy, making us feel hyperactive. They elevate heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. Sleep disturbances and depression are among the common withdrawal symptoms. Repeated abuse of stimulants can lead to psychosis, paranoia, and even death.

Opioids (powerful painkillers, such as heroin, morphine, codeine, Vicodin)
Opioids (also known as opiates) are a class of drugs used mainly for pain relief. They work by suppressing our brain’s pain receptors and promoting feelings of tranquility. Overdosing is common as we build up tolerance, and need to continually increase the dose to feel similar effects. Common withdrawal symptoms include insomnia, fever, irritability, diarrhea and vomiting. Overdosing will cause respiratory or cardiac arrest.

Cannabinoids (e.g. marijuana, hashish, K2/spice)
Cannabinoids originate from plants, although synthetic (man-made) materials are often added to them. They bind to specific receptors in the brain – and other parts of the body – which leads to feelings of relaxation and / or euphoria. Cannabinoid use leads to difficulties in concentration, impaired memory, sensory distortion, and lower reaction times. Long-term use can result in respiratory damage, reduced sex drive and performance, abnormal cell growth, and immune system suppression.

Inhalants (e.g. cleaning fluids, glues and solvents, aerosol sprays, nitrous oxide)
Not all addictive substances are illegal or difficult to obtain – many can be found around the home but can be as harmful as other drugs if misused. Usually, adolescents abuse inhalants, as they are inexpensive and easy to access. They can be very dangerous, as they need to be used constantly and repeatedly to achieve the short-lasting high they produce. They can cause confusion, poor coordination, vomiting and lightheadedness. Overdosing can lead to unconsciousness, weakness, severe headaches, and even death.

Hallucinogens (e.g. LSD/acid, PCP, ketamine, mushrooms)
Hallucinogens are a particular class of drugs that distort our realities, causing us to see or hear imaginary things. They can create intense and rapid mood swings. Users often experience feelings of fear, anxiety, and paranoia as they lose contact with reality. Long-term use is particularly dangerous and can contribute to flashbacks and permanent psychosis.

Anabolic steroids (e.g. oxandrin, stanozol)
Usually associated with athletes, who abuse them to change their bodies and enhance their performances, anabolic steroids increase testosterone production and muscle growth while lowering body fat. Abusing them for a long period of time may lead to mood swings, stunted growth, male-pattern baldness, heart attacks and / or cancer. Injecting them creates an additional problem if users share needles, which can cause infections, AIDS and hepatitis C.

Prescription drugs
Prescription drugs are licensed medicines that are regulated and require a prescription for purchase. Mostly commonly abused are opioids (used to treat pain), depressants (used to treat anxiety / sleep disorders) and stimulants (used to treat ADHD / narcolepsy). Chronic prescription drug use causes physical dependency, tolerance and eventually addiction – and withdrawal symptoms will develop if use is reduced or stopped. Other risks include a wide variety of unpleasant side effects and overdose.

Over-the-counter drugs (e.g. diet pills, sleep aids, cold and flu remedies)
Over-the-counter drugs are medicines sold without a prescription, including weight-loss medications, pain relievers, motion sickness pills and cold / flu remedies. Many of these drugs are addictive and can be dangerous if misused or taken in high doses. Common side effects include poor judgment, loss of motor control and hallucinations. High doses can lead to fever and even strokes, especially if taken in hot climates.

What is Polydrug use?

Mixing drugs, or taking multiple drugs together, is known as polydrug use. It is common in those attempting to self-medicate. Reasons for polydrug use include:

  • it can intensify or prolong the pleasurable effects of an individual drug
  • it can help to balance or control negative effects of individual drugs
  • it can substitute sought-after effects.

Combining drugs in this way is extremely dangerous and carries extra risks. The effects of the individual drugs when combined can be extremely unpredictable.

Polydrug use is known to multiply the rewarding effects of drugs in the brain, significantly increasing the likelihood of becoming addicted.

Polydrug use presents specific obstacles to recovery, but these are not insurmountable. With the right treatment, we can gain the knowledge, confidence and practical skills to free ourselves from addiction and create a more stable and fulfilling life.

What are the Stages of Drug Addiction

People who become addicted to drugs typically pass through predictable stages. Being aware of these stages can help us to recognise a problem, and seek help, sooner rather than later.

  1. Experimentation

  2. Drug use typically starts with experimentation or voluntary use. At this early stage, use is infrequent and often seen as socially acceptable within our peer group. We may start in response to problems in life such as social anxiety, work issues, health issues or relationships problems – believing it is solving our problems and making us feel better. Most people at this stage are able to stop using by themselves. Those that do not are likely to move on to the next stage – regular use.

  3. Regular use

  4. This stage is characterised by drug use on a regular basis – with friends or while alone. It may not be every day, but a predictable pattern is developing (every weekend or every time we feel stressed or anxious). Using drugs starts to become a focal point and we will feel concerned about losing access to them.

  5. Problem or risky use

  6. At this stage we may be having difficulties meeting our responsibilities at work, home, socially and / or financially due to our drug use. We may also begin to experience other negative effects, such as ill health, mood changes and erratic behaviour.

  7. Dependence

  8. By this stage, physical dependence and addiction will be established. There will be serious consequences to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. We are likely to become unable to maintain a job or function normally in our daily routines. We are also likely to lack motivation to take care of ourselves, so our personal hygiene and appearance will suffer. Despite the harm the drug use is causing, we will be preoccupied with sourcing drugs and will continue to use. At this stage we will suffer withdrawal symptoms if we cut back or try to stop.

  9. Addiction

  10. Reaching this stage, drug use is compulsive and out of control. Our physical and mental health will be deteriorating significantly. Our drug craving, seeking and using are uncontrollable, even though we are aware of the harmful consequences.

Not everyone who tries drugs will become regular users and move through these stages. There is a wide range of factors involved in whether a person becomes addicted to drugs or not, including genetics, personality traits, family history and personal circumstances. The characteristics of the drug type being used will also make a difference to outcome.

Each person’s experience is unique, but being able to recognise the signs as early as possible – and seeking professional help – will significantly increase our chances of reversing the damage and making a full recovery.

What are the Causes of Drug Addiction?

While the reasons for using drugs differ from person to person, it is common for people to start using drugs recreationally, to experiment, to ‘escape’ or to mask pain. In many cases, the onset of drug use can be due to untreated mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.

Not everyone who uses drugs will become an addicted. Drug addiction is a highly complex condition and there is no single cause that can be used to predict if a person will become addicted or not. However, there are several risk factors known to play a role in the development of substance use disorders, including:

  • Biological factors
    • genetic vulnerability
    • psychological vulnerability
    • gender.

  • Psychological factors
    • personality traits, such as high impulsivity and sensation seeking or low self-esteem
    • underlying mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety or PTSD.

  • Contextual factors
    • family history of substance misuse and / or addiction
    • poor coping skills or lack of social support structure
    • history of trauma / childhood abuse
    • social pressure, for example, substance use among peers, perceived as ‘normal behaviour’
    • stress – such as a sudden life change, job loss, serious illness, death of a loved one or financial pressures.

  • Sociocultural or environmental factors
    • easy access to substances
    • low socioeconomic status or community poverty
    • media influence.

The characteristics of the drug type itself will also play a role in whether or not a person becomes addicted. For example, certain drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and painkillers have the capacity to form addictions extremely quickly.

By seeking support and treatment to get to the root cause of our addiction – and address any co-occurring disorders – it is possible to recover and enjoy long-lasting sobriety and wellness.

What are the Effects of Drug Addiction?

Prolonged drug dependence interferes with almost every organ in the human body, in addition to altering brain chemistry and function. Different drugs have different damaging effects, but some of the common effects of a substance use disorder include:


  • damaged immune system, increasing susceptibility to illness and infection
  • heart conditions, including collapsed veins and heart attacks
  • nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain / gastrointestinal damage
  • liver damage / liver failure
  • kidney damage / kidney failure
  • lung disease
  • seizures, strokes and brain damage
  • withdrawal symptoms if drug is reduced or stopped
  • fatal overdose.


  • changes in memory and learning
  • reduced concentration and decision-making abilities
  • brain changes can lead to (or exacerbate) mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
  • permanent brain damage.

Social and behavioural

  • decrease in performance at work / loss of employment
  • social or recreational activities given up or reduced
  • mood changes
  • social withdrawal
  • relationship problems / divorce
  • difficulty maintaining personal hygiene
  • incarceration
  • homelessness
  • legal / financial troubles
  • increased impulsiveness and risky behaviours, including unprotected sex.

It is important to recognise that without expert help and support, the effects of drug addiction will become increasingly worse, resulting in a negative impact on all areas of our life. Many of the effects can be reversed or minimised by getting sober. The best way to prevent permanent damage is to seek professional help as soon as possible, to overcome the addiction and improve our chances of long-term recovery.

Can Drug Addiction be Treated?

Drug addiction is a chronic disease but it can be managed and treated successfully. The complex nature of the disease, and the multiple variables involved in each individual case, mean that there isn’t one treatment approach that works for all addicts.

Research shows that combining personalised behavioural therapy with medications is the treatment approach most likely to ensure a successful recovery. This combination – known as medication-assisted treatment – is tailored to address each individual’s drug-use patterns and drug-related medical, psychiatric, environmental and social problems.

  • Behaviour therapy and counselling
  • Behaviour therapies help us to modify our attitudes and behaviours related to drug use, increase healthy life skills and persist with other forms of treatment. Therapies may include family therapy and group therapy, in addition to individual sessions. Common types of therapy include Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness Therapy.

  • Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues
  • Medication and drug-based treatment
  • Medications can be used to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms during detoxification, prevent relapse and treat co-occurring conditions, such as depression.

  • Community support
  • Outpatient treatment can include a wide range of programmes, including in-person or online support groups – as a source of education, encouragement and social support.

  • Long-term follow up to prevent relapse.

The length of time needed for addiction treatment will depend on many factors, including the severity of our condition, the type of substances we’re addicted to and the presence of any co-occurring mental health disorders.

Drug Addiction Treatment at White River Manor

Through mixed therapeutic methods, a strategic approach, and staff with decades of experience, White River Manor provides the setting, resources, and tools necessary for a full, successful recovery.

Using a combination of traditional methods, ancient philosophy and cutting-edge science, the team at White River Manor treats the whole person and not just the addiction. This holistic approach ensures deep transformational healing and a full recovery.

We understand that recovery is a lifelong pursuit of positive habit building, maintaining mental wellbeing and avoiding triggers, which is why we also include a complete after-care plan to support you following treatment.

Admitting you have a problem and deciding to get professional help is the first step to building an improved and more fulfilling life.

If you are struggling with drug addiction, or are worried about a loved one, please contact us to talk about treatment options. We are here and ready to help.

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