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What is Drug Addiction?

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While drug abuse can be related to a variety of substances and is more often than not seen as the situation of an individual using drugs in spite of the knowledge that their life has become unmanageable, drug addiction may be powerful enough to become more important than all aspects of a person’s life. The person suffering from drug addiction chooses their substance of choice over family, friends, employment and health.

The National Institute for Drug Addiction (NIDA) defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain both in terms of its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and they often lead to the harmful behaviors.

Addiction is a lot like other diseases, such as heart disease. Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of an underlying organ and have serious, harmful consequences. However, they both are preventable and treatable. If either is left untreated, they can both last a lifetime.

NIDA suggests that people begin taking drugs for a variety of reasons:

  • PleasureMost abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. The initial euphoria is quickly followed by other feelings that vary according to the drug of choice. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the “high” is accompanied by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy. In contrast, the euphoria caused by opiates such as heroin is accompanied by feelings of relaxation and satisfaction. Most often these pleasurable feelings are followed by intense negative feelings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, etc.
  • ComfortSome people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression begin abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse, or relapse in patients recovering from addiction.
  • Performance – Some people feel pressure to chemically enhance or improve their cognitive or athletic performance. This pressure can play a role in initial experimentation and continued abuse of drugs such as prescription stimulants or anabolic/androgenic steroids.
  • Curiosity – Though Baby Boomers and Older Adults may be less likely than teens to engage in risky or daring behaviors, they may still decide to experiment with the positive effects they believe certain drugs may have on their aging bodies.

As NIDA discusses, when individuals first use a drug they may perceive what seems to be positive effects; they also may believe that they can control their use. However, drugs can quickly take over a person’s life. Over time, if drug use continues, other previously enjoyable activities become less pleasurable.

Soon, taking the chosen drug becomes necessary for the user just to feel “normal.” They may then compulsively seek and take drugs even though it causes tremendous financial and emotional problems for themselves and their loved ones.

Some people may start to feel the need to take higher or more frequent doses, even in the early stages of their drug use. These are the telltale signs of an addiction. Even relatively moderate drug use poses extreme danger to self and others especially when attempting to operate a motor vehicle.

The initial decision to take drugs is typically voluntary, but with continued use an individual’s self-control can become seriously impaired. This impairment in self-control is the hallmark of addiction.

Brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works. Further research in this area may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors of addiction.

No single factor determines whether or not an individual will become addicted to drugs. As with any other disease, vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person.

In general, the more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs will lead to abuse and addiction. Protective factors, on the other hand, may help to reduce a person’s risk of developing addiction. Risk and protective factors may both have environmental links such as particular positive or negative conditions at home, at school, and in the neighborhood. Or they may be biologically linked in regards to genetics, developmental stage, gender or ethnicity.

Environmental risk factors

Home and Family – The influence of the home environment, especially during childhood, is a very important factor. Parents or older family members who abuse alcohol or drugs, or who engage in criminal behavior, can increase their children’s risk of developing drug problems. A positive history of adolescent drug use has a strong carryover into cases of drug addiction within the Baby Boomer and Older Adult populations.

Peers and School – Likewise, friends and acquaintances can have an increasingly strong influence during adolescence. Drug-using peers can sway even those without risk factors to try drugs for the first time. Academic failure or poor social skills can put a child at further risk for using or becoming addicted to drugs. This risk is carried into adulthood and beyond so that Baby Boomers and Older Adults who tried drugs as kids are much more prone to struggle with addiction later on in life.

Biological risk factors

Genetics – Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 – 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.

Stage of Development and Health – A person’s stage of development and other medical conditions they may have are also factors in addiction. Baby Boomers and Older Adults with pre-existing mental disorders are at greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population.

The characteristics of a classic drug addict are well known. Typically, the person exhibits irresponsible, erratic, amoral and unethical behavior. These attributes, most commonly, are not native to the individual. Rather, they are the result of relinquishing to intoxication.

Drug usage disinhibits the brain, causing a person to lose the normal social and psychological inhibitions. The result is “acting out” and being socially inappropriate.

The most important reward pathway in the brain is the mesolimbic dopamine system. Under normal conditions, this circuit controls an individual’s responses to natural rewards, such as food, sex, and social interactions. It is therefore an important determinant of motivation and incentive drive. Activation of this pathway tells the individual to repeat what it just did to get that particular reward. It also tells the memory centers in the brain to pay particular attention to all features of that rewarding experience, so it can be repeated in the future. This area has to do with the primitive or instinctual aspects of cognition, and has been associated by some anthropologists and psychologists as the historically oldest part of the brain.

For the addict, the reward center of this region dominates all other parts of the brain, compelling constant reward and stimulation. The stimulation of the reward center commands all actions and thought.

The difference between the addict and the non-addict is that the reward is highly sensitive for the former individual. For the addicted person, the brain is disinhibited and illogical due to chemical dependence, with the reward center taking over and controlling normal cognitive functions such as judgment and logic. The result is a person driven by craving and reward. The mind and the body undergo actual physical changes that result in a chemically induced abnormality or illness.

Addiction has been called a bio-psychological-social disease because it impacts each of those aspects of a person’s being. It is a critical chronic disease that becomes progressively worse without treatment.

One of the tragedies of drug addiction in the Older Adult and Baby Boomer populations is the social consequences. Relationships are destroyed and the user is forced into social isolation due to abnormal and destructive behavior. Frequently, legal and criminal complications arise. Debt becomes a supreme liability. One of the great ironies of the typical senior addict community is that many times these are individuals of high accomplishment that have become the victims of addiction.

The means to sobriety includes detoxification and recovery. An individual must be willing to hand over their life to a proven methodology for managing sobriety. In the end, the successful participant will take control of his or her life and seize opportunity that freedom from addiction provides. Please feel free to call us at Origins Behavioral HealthCare at 1-844-U-GET-WELL (844-843-8935) if you wish to learn more.

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