Drug addiction is a very misunderstood disease. Oftentimes, we do not understand how or why people get addicted to drugs. Many of us mistakenly think that people with addictions lack good morals, and choose to continue using drugs despite the negative consequences. Some believe that drugs are easy to quit, and that people who are addicted simply lack the willpower or motivation to stop. These views could not be farther from the truth, and are exactly what contribute to the stigma of substance abuse.
In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and typically, it takes more than strong will or good intentions to stop. Most individuals with a substance use disorder want to stop using. However, the neurological changes that drugs induce in their brains make it very hard to quit. Drugs change the brain so that users physically feel as though they need drugs to function normally. They prioritise drug use above all else, as drugs are the only way they feel they can make it through the day, without the pain of withdrawal.
You may be here now wondering, “Why do people get addicted to drugs?” or more significantly, “Why did this happen to my loved one?” Maybe you are wondering what causes drug addiction at all. You are not alone. Many family members – particularly parents – will have these questions top of mind, questioning whether they themselves are to blame for their loved ones’ choices to use.
It is true that, initially, a person makes the choice to use drugs. However, after some time, that use can transition from voluntary to compulsive. Compulsive drug use is a defining sign of drug addiction, and means that the drugs have compromised a user’s natural ability to exhibit self-control.
There is not a single cause of drug addiction, or a single reason why people get addicted to drugs. Rather, the likelihood that a person will get addicted to drugs depends on a combination of social, environmental, developmental, genetic, and psychological factors. The more risk factors a person has, according to research, the greater their vulnerability to drug addiction.
Drug Addiction and the Brain
Addiction impacts the brain on many levels. The chemical compounds in stimulants, nicotine, opioids, alcohol, and sedatives enter the brain and bloodstream upon use. Once a chemical enters the brain, it can cause people to lose control of their impulses or crave a harmful substance.
When someone develops an addiction, the brain craves the reward of the substance. This is due to the intense stimulation of the brain’s reward system. In response, many users continue use of the substance; this can lead to a host of euphoric feelings and strange behavioural traits. Long-term addiction can have severe outcomes, such as brain damage, and can even result in death.
The Biochemistry of Addiction
The brain responds to addiction based on a number of factors, such as the type and number of drugs used, the frequency of use, and the stage of addiction that has developed. If someone uses cocaine, for example, they will notice a feeling of euphoria. This occurs because cocaine is psychoactive and impacts the area of the brain that controls pleasure and motivation. There is a short and powerful burst of dopamine, the chemical that causes many to feel euphoric. This feeling can be so intense that a strong desire to continue using may form.
The more someone abuses a drug, the more they may continue using it unless they get help. Once the chemical has affected the brain, individuals can feel physical symptoms as well as the impact of the chemical throughout their nervous system. Symptoms can include a rapid heartbeat, paranoia, nausea, hallucinations, and other disturbing sensations the individual has little control over. The person may become consumed with abusing the substance no matter the cost. As a result of this powerful grip of substance abuse, individuals can begin acting in unrecognisable ways.
Drug Addiction Risk Factors
- Genetics – According to the research, genetics account for approximately half, or 50 percent, of a person’s risk of developing an addiction. Gender and ethnicity may also influence this risk.
- Environment – Like with many other disorders, drug addiction is also largely environmental. A person’s surroundings – including family, friends, home, and neighbourhood – can all influence their risk of drug addiction in some way. For example, living in a low-income neighbourhood with easy access to drugs and alcohol increases the risk of addiction. Other environmental factors include peer pressure, stress, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, and lack of parental guidance or education about drugs.
- Development – Both genetic and environmental risk factors correlate with a person’s critical developmental stages. For example, when a teen uses drugs in adolescence (when the brain is still maturing), the risk of disrupting brain development is high. Research shows that almost 70 percent of adolescents who try an illicit drug before age 13 develop a clinical addiction within the next seven years. Teens who use drugs before age 18 are also far more likely to get addicted to drugs down the road. While people can get addicted to drugs at any age, children, adolescents, and young adults are at greatest risk due to their stage of brain development.
- Mental health disorders – When an individual is struggling with a mental health issue – such as anxiety disorder, depression, ADHD, or schizophrenia – they are more likely to get addicted to drugs. Oftentimes, a person experiencing mental or emotional distress will self-medicate with drugs in efforts to escape the pain or experience temporary relief. Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are other risk factors for drug addiction.
Why Do Only Some People Suffer from Addiction?
This is an age-old question that many people ask, particularly when it is their loved one suffering from an addictive disorder. Why is it that only some people will get addicted to drugs, while others can drink and use without ever having a problem?
Experts are always investigating this topic. What we know today is that some people are simply more vulnerable to addiction than others, based on the risk factors above. Stressful early life experiences – such as being abused, suffering from trauma, even prenatal exposure to alcohol or other drugs – can put a person at greater risk of addiction. Being around other peers who drink and use drugs, as well as lacking parental supervision at home, also plays a part in a person’s risk.
There is a wide range of genetic and environmental factors that promote strong psychosocial well-being and resilience to drug addiction, ultimately balancing or counteracting the risk factors listed above. With that said, it remains difficult to predict who will get addicted to drugs and who won’t, since these factors (whether positive or negative) are not always apparent.
Many people, particularly those who were brought up in a safe, loving, supportive home, believe that “addiction won’t happen to me.” Unfortunately, addiction can happen to anyone, of any age, background, or upbringing. Anyone can try drugs, enjoy them, and continue using them as a result – spiralling into the addiction cycle. If you are a parent educating your young one at home, it’s important to reiterate this fact. Drug addiction does not discriminate.
Why Do People Use Drugs to Begin With?
Consider the top reasons teens do drugs but there are many other factors influencing a person’s likelihood to start. Some of those reasons include:
- Experimentation – Particularly for young people, experimentation is a common reason for trying drugs for the first-time: to feel what it’s like to be high.
- Peer Pressure – Other kids, at school or around town, may push a person to use drugs. Teens and young adults may feel pressured to drink and use drugs so that they will fit in.
- Mental Health Factors – Some people use drugs to feel better, to cope with uncomfortable feelings as a result of mental health issues: social anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, low self-esteem, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, and more.
- Prescriptions – In today’s opioid crisis, many addictions start with prescription drugs like OxyContin. Many prescription drugs are highly addictive as well as over-prescribed. For instance, addiction may start in a teenager who was prescribed painkillers after a wisdom tooth removal. Benzodiazepines – which ironically can be prescribed as anti-anxiety medications – are also highly addictive drugs.
- The Drug Epidemic – Drugs have been part of our society since the beginning of time. Now we have an epidemic on our hands, and they have invaded all aspects of life. An estimated 208 million people internationally consume illegal drugs. In Canada, we know that 19.9 million people reported using illegal drugs.
What to Do if Someone Has a Drug Addiction
Despite all the possible causes of drug addiction, there is good news. More than ever, researchers understand how drugs affect the brain—and, as a result, have found treatments that can help people recover and lead productive lives.
Studies support an integrated, multifaceted approach to addiction treatment, where behavioural therapies are combined with clinical treatments to help patients overcome this battle. Drug treatment should also involve individual counselling to help uncover a person’s reasons for using drugs. This is key to achieving sobriety. Above all else, drug addiction treatment should always be tailored to an individual’s needs and drug use patterns – addressing any co-occurring disorders, or medical or social problems, that may be at play in the recovery process.
Types and Levels of Addiction Treatment
Depending on the severity of the addiction, you or a loved one may require one or more levels of care to achieve long term recovery. The following are the types of rehab where therapy programs – like cognitive behaviour therapy – will be utilised:
- Detoxification: A medically managed detox program will help stabilise the patient and help them overcome the symptoms of withdrawal from drugs or alcohol. These programs typically last for a few days or weeks. Once stabilisation is achieved, the patient may need an inpatient program.
- Inpatient/Residential Rehab: Inpatient and residential rehab programs are live-in solutions where patients will receive supervised treatment and structured care plans to overcome their addiction. These programs may last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and may be followed by outpatient rehab. Depending on the program, patients may receive 24/7 monitoring from a licensed professional.
- Outpatient Rehab & Intensive Outpatient Programs: Outpatient programs allow users to attend therapy and receive treatment on their own time without having to live at the facility. Treatment may occur at a substance use treatment centre, community health clinic, hospital-affiliated clinic, or other facility, meeting on a regular basis. Some outpatient programs may even offer night and weekend programs, making them an ideal option for many patients with personal, family, or professional responsibilities that prevent them from attending an inpatient treatment program.
If you suspect that you or a loved one has a drug problem, the solution is not to blame yourself or anyone else. Instead, call Addiction Rehab Toronto for help. We understand that addiction is a challenging disease that disrupts how a person thinks and makes decisions, and we help our clients heal through customised addiction treatment programs. We will begin by talking about your or your loved one’s needs, and how we can put the individual back on a path to recovery.