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Drug and Alcohol Addiction

About Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Drug and alcohol addiction are issues that approximately 1 in 8 American adults face. It can be a confusing subject for those not affected, and even for some addicts themselves. In many cases, there isn’t one solitary reason that a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. The issue is almost always multi-faceted. Despite the belief of many, addiction goes far beyond a lack of willpower or bad choices, and quitting is made difficult by a change in the way the brain functions, brought on by the substances themselves.

What is an addiction?

Addiction is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence.” A person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol has both a psychological and a physical need for that substance. As the addiction progresses, their body builds a tolerance to their drug of choice, requiring more and more of it to get the same effect or high. People can be addicted to a wide variety of substances, ranging from tobacco all the way to street drugs like heroin. One of the most common addictions is to prescription pain medications. Many addicts begin with a legitimate need for opioid painkillers, and it progresses into a substance use disorder.

The classification of addiction as a disease is a source of much debate in some circles, but the medical community has long since reached a consensus that there are physical components to addiction that cannot be ignored. While addiction may start as a choice for some people, in that they chose to take drugs in the first place, the addict ends up with impaired decision-making abilities due to the substance’s influence on the brain. This leads to a decrease in their ability to make rational decisions and good judgments, further perpetuating the disease.

How is the brain affected by substance use?

Drugs and alcohol both have an immediate observable effect on cognitive function. As soon as a person is drunk or high, their behavior becomes less inhibited and more erratic. These are the effects that everyone has seen, whether in person or portrayed in media. Decision-making ability is distorted.

What isn’t as obvious, however, are the effects on the brain from long term use. Over time, the chemical makeup of the brain of a substance abuser changes, leading to strong cravings for the substance. Studies have been performing using brain imaging technology, and these show physical changes in the brain in areas that are in control of memory, behavior, and judgment.

These changes make it even more difficult for an addict to seek help and complete treatment.

Why do some people become addicted while others do not?

There are many theories on this. Some studies have found that a predilection to addiction has a genetic component, meaning that if there is a family history of addiction, a person is more likely to become an addict themselves. Mental illness plays a large role, as well. Those suffering from mental illness are twice as likely to end up with a substance abuse disorder. Environment plays a factor, as well. If a person was raised around drugs and alcohol use, they’re more likely to use in turn. Additionally, if a person is exposed to drug use in social settings, experimentation chances are increased, and social use can quickly turn into an addiction.

The more risk factors that pertain to a person, the more likely they are to become an addict. That doesn’t mean that a person to which none of these apply will not become an addict, but it does put them in a better place to avoid addiction.

Is there a cure for addiction?

Addiction is a very complicated and multi-faceted issue. While there is no cure for addiction, there are treatments and therapies available to help addicts stop using, and to support them in remaining sober.

Treatment methods vary depending on the underlying issues that caused the addiction. A blend of medical intervention, when necessary, one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and support groups is standard. Those whose addiction is severe may need to stay in a rehabilitation center during the first part of the journey to sobriety so that they can receive intensive care and therapy as their body rids itself of the substance and they learn to navigate life without its influence.

After the initial intensive phase, it’s extremely important for the addict to continue their treatment. Support groups like Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous provide a place for recovering addicts to meet with other recovering addicts and share their stories and struggles. One-on-one therapy assists the recovering addict with unpacking issues that led to or exacerbated their addiction. Regular follow-ups with a primary care physician or pain management specialist ensure that any pain or health-related issues are kept well under control.

Even though there is not a cure in and of itself, many addicts go on to get clean and live a happy, sober life.

Where can I learn more about drug and alcohol addiction?

American Psychiatric Association – What is Addiction?

National Institute on Drug Abuse – Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction

To find treatment facilities in your area, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s behavioral health treatment services locator here.

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