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:
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)
- Stimulants (e.g. amphetamines, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy/MDMA)
- Opioids (powerful painkillers, such as heroin, morphine, codeine, Vicodin)
- Cannabinoids (e.g. marijuana, hashish, K2/spice)
- Inhalants (e.g. cleaning fluids, glues and solvents, aerosol sprays, nitrous oxide)
- Hallucinogens (e.g. LSD/acid, PCP, ketamine, mushrooms)
- Anabolic steroids (e.g. oxandrin, stanozol)
- Prescription drugs
- Over-the-counter drugs (e.g. diet pills, sleep aids, cold and flu remedies)
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.
- Regular use
- Problem or risky use
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
- Psychological factors
- 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
- 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
- Evaluation and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues
- Medication and drug-based treatment
- Community 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 aftercare 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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