Modern medicine understands that addiction to drugs or alcohol to be a chronic disease of the brain in which the reward system, memory, learning, motivation, and associated brain systems are changed, leading to compulsive behaviors around specific triggers, most often substances. Addiction treatment involves detoxing the body from any drugs or alcohol and working with specialists to change behaviors around these substances.
A Chronic Illness
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) compares drug addiction to other chronic illnesses like asthma, hypertension, and diabetes, which all involve long-term medical treatment along with periodic relapses of symptoms.
For people struggling with drug addiction, a relapse back into substance abuse is a symptom of the chronic illness, not a failure of morals or willpower.
For example, between 30 percent and 50 percent of people with type I diabetes experience symptom relapse, and about 50 percent to 70 percent of people with hypertension experience a relapse of symptoms. Treating these medical conditions involves stabilizing people so they can live normal, healthy lives, and when symptoms recur or new symptoms appear, that is called a relapse.
Symptoms of drug addiction are similar. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of people with an addiction experience relapse, which means that symptoms associated with the chronic illness reappear or new ones appear.
There are several risk factors for developing a drug addiction. The most prominent are:
Genetics, gender, ethnicity, mental illnesses, and some physical illnesses all put one at risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
One’s home environment while growing up influences levels of stress and coping mechanisms for that stress. Work, adult home environment, and other surroundings also influence when or how a drug addiction problem occurs.
The combination of genetics and the surrounding environment in childhood influences how genes are expressed and how stress will be managed later in life. Triggers from trauma in childhood may also lead to substance abuse problems.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lists 11 criteria for drug addiction to help clinicians diagnose this condition. If someone shows at least two of these symptoms over a 12-month period, they may have an addiction disorder.
- Taking more of the drug than intended, for a longer period of time than intended
- A persistent desire to stop taking drugs or repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit taking drugs
- A lot of time spent trying to get drugs, abuse them, and/or recover from their effects
- Intense cravings or urges for specific drugs
- Failing to go to work or school, or to meet obligations to friends and family because of drug abuse
- Ongoing drug abuse despite physical, mental, emotional, or social problems associated with the abuse
- Giving up hobbies or activities to abuse drugs
- Ongoing abuse of drugs in inappropriate situations, like using them in the morning before work, driving while intoxicated, or abusing drugs around children
- Experiencing physical or psychological problems due to substance abuse but continuing to abuse drugs anyway
- Physical tolerance, meaning the body needs more of the drug to experience the original level of intoxication
- Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when trying to quit the drug
Not all of these symptoms will be immediately apparent to concerned friends or family. If you think your loved one struggles with drug addiction, you may notice certain behavioral or physical changes.
- The person’s sleeping and eating patterns change.
- They struggle to meet deadlines at work or complete schoolwork.
- They show a lack of energy, consistent fatigue, and weight loss or gain.
- They neglect their hygiene or appearance.
- They socialize less or have new friends they spend all their time with.
- They experience financial problems due to instability.
Reasons Willpower Won’t Be Enough To Overcome Addiction
No matter how much you believe in yourself, it’s unlikely your willpower will be enough to conquer addiction. The issues you’ll face are complex, and even if you can overcome the acute withdrawals by yourself, you could succumb to relapse when your emotions that you’ve buried with drugs or alcohol come to the surface.
Here are some other reasons why willpower alone isn’t enough to overcome addiction:
- Addiction is a disease, not a choice: If you abstain from drugs or alcohol using willpower alone, you likely aren’t struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). You never plan on becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs, but once you’ve developed the condition, your power of choice slowly disappears. Once you move even further into addiction, you will lose all control over decision-making and will participate in unhealthy behaviors despite consequences.
- Making a decision isn’t enough: As was mentioned above, you may have made the noble effort to stop drinking or consuming drugs, but you’ve quickly realized that decision that keeping the promise is nearly impossible. Although your heart is in the right place and you’ve made the exemplary commitment, it won’t be enough to follow through with such a significant decision. The odds of maintaining long-term sobriety are much lower if you fail to seek medical care, therapy, and other means of support addiction treatment provides.
- Your willpower suppresses trauma: If you’re struggling to overcome a traumatic past, your strong will may push it down further. It’s not easy to overcome addiction by yourself if you suppress pain, and you won’t overcome these issues when you fight a silent battle. You must speak up to start the healing process.
- Willpower will cause you to lose connections: Those who report the highest levels of success admitted to going through addiction treatment. If you believe that you can overcome addiction through willpower alone, you’ll see no reason to reach out to others for help. One of the most crucial pieces of the recovery process is connection, and avoiding others is detrimental to long-term success.
- Unfortunately, we forget very fast: Once you move forward into more normal life and overcome withdrawals or PAWS, we’re quick to forget about the challenges we went up against. Your willpower could have caused you to give up drugs and alcohol for a short period, but statistics point to a likely relapse without treatment. Unfortunately, drug users have a voice in their head that doesn’t disappear with sobriety and will tell you that it’ll be different this time around. Willpower isn’t enough to remind you of the damage caused by drugs or alcohol.
Who Struggles With Drug Addiction and What Drugs Are Abused?
Typically, addiction occurs in four stages:
- Experimenting with the drug and enjoying its effects
- Social or regular use, like drinking consistently with friends or abusing drugs frequently at parties
- Problematic or risky use as drug abuse becomes extreme regardless of the consequences
- Physical dependence as the brain gets used to the presence of the drug to feel normal
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) tracks rates of drug and alcohol abuse across the United States. The 2016 report found that illicit drugs – substances that are illegal in the U.S. or manufactured as illegal versions of prescription drugs, like fentanyl – were abused by about 28.6 million people ages 12 and older in the month before being surveyed. This is about 1 in 10 Americans, or 10.6 percent of the overall adolescent and adult population.
Different age groups abuse drugs at different rates, with young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 abusing most substances at the highest rates. NSDUH found that 1 in 4 young adults in that age group abuses illicit substances.
Alcohol: Although this substance is legal for people in the U.S. who are 21 and older, it is addictive for many and a widely abused intoxicating drug in this country.
NSDUH reports that, in 2016, there were 136.7 million Americans ages 12 and older who reported currently drinking; 65.3 million reported binge drinking alcohol, which is defined as four or more drinks in two hours for women, and five or more drinks in two hours for men; and 16.3 million people reported heavy alcohol use in the past month, meaning they drank at least one alcoholic beverage every day of the week.
Binge drinking and heavy drinking are not the same as alcohol use disorder (AUD), the addiction to alcohol that used to be called alcoholism.
However, forms of problem drinking like consistent binge drinking or heavy drinking can indicate potential rates of AUD.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that there are about 15.1 million adults, and 623,000 adolescents, in the country who struggle with AUD. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that short-term, drinking problems can lead to:
- Serious injury from an accident
- Increased risk of violence
- Alcohol poisoning
- Risky behaviors, especially during a blackout
- Alcohol is very damaging to the body. It is associated with many long-term problems like:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Stroke, heart attack, pulmonary embolism
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Liver damage, disease, failure, and cancer
- Cancer of the esophagus, mouth, colon, or breast
- Mental health problems like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia
Opioids: The current epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose in the U.S. began in the early 2000s, as prescribing practices around painkillers were loosened, and new versions of painkillers, like oxycodone and hydrocodone, were more widely distributed to people after they suffered an injury or went through surgery. Scores of people developed addictions to these drugs and were not able to stop taking them when their prescriptions ran out. Recently, as regulations around opioid painkillers have tightened, many people who struggle with prescription opioid addiction have turned to heroin because it is more potent, less expensive, and easier to find. With the introduction of illicitly made fentanyl, more people are overdosing because this extremely potent drug is mixed with heroin or other opioids. The CDC reports that in 2016, 115 people died every day due to an opioid overdose. Between 1999 and 2016, over 350,000 people overdosed on an opioid drug.
Tobacco/nicotine: In 2016, there were an estimated 51.3 million people in the U.S. ages 12 and older who smoked cigarettes; 29.7 million of those people were daily smokers, and 12.2 million smoked a pack or more per day. Currently, about 1 in 5 people in the U.S. is a current smoker, but smoking has been on the decline in this country since 2002. Still, there are about 480,000 deaths annually from cigarette smoking.
Prescription sedatives and stimulants: Benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax, sedative-hypnotics like Ambien, and stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are widely abused. Stimulants are typically abused as performance enhancers, sometimes by athletes but more often by students or young adults in a competitive workforce. Sedatives may be abused by people who struggle with an anxiety disorder or insomnia, who received a prescription for the substance; by people who want to enhance the experience of other CNS depressants like opioids or alcohol; or to lower the negative side effects of stimulants like Ritalin or cocaine. Stimulants increase focus and physical energy while sedatives increased relaxation and pleasant feelings. Long-term, these drugs can cause serious harm, including:
- Cardiovascular damage
- Cognitive and memory damage
- Mood disorders
Cocaine: Although this drug is technically legal as a prescription substance in the U.S. – it is a Schedule II drug because it can be used as a local anesthetic – cocaine is most famous as an addictive, recreational drug. It is made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. Powdered cocaine is snorted or smoked while crack cocaine is smoked. This stimulant is very potent and can cause various side effects.
- Dilated Pupils
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Increased energy, talkativeness, and sociability
- Hyperthermia, or dangerously raised body temperature
- High heart rate and blood pressure
- Reduced appetite
- Long-term, cocaine abuse can cause serious health issues.
- Convulsions and seizures
- Heart attack, stroke, or cardiovascular disease
- Lung damage
- Hallucinations or psychosis, which may become permanent
- Mood disturbances or mental illness
- Damage to the nasal septum or upper palate from snorting the drug
Marijuana: This is the most popular illicit drug in the U.S. Although many states are passing recreational legalization, and over half the states have legalized medical marijuana use, this drug is still illegal at the federal level, listed as a Schedule I substance per the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and enforced by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 2014, about 22.2 million Americans ages 12 and older reported abusing marijuana at least once in the past month, and about 2.6 million adolescents that year reported trying marijuana for the first time.
Marijuana is a psychedelic drug, meaning it has effects similar to hallucinogens like mushrooms or LSD; however, it also has some central nervous system (CNS) depressant effects, like relaxation and sleepiness. A marijuana high comes with various short-term effects.
- Bloodshot eyes
- Increased heart rate
- Increased appetite
- Lower blood pressure
- Changes in the perception of time or the senses
Smoking marijuana, which is the most common form of abuse, increases the risk of lung irritation, infections, chronic illnesses like emphysema, and even lung cancer. The brain can also suffer long-term harm from any kind of marijuana abuse.
- Memory loss or problems
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Difficulty learning
- Lower IQ
- Loss of motivation
- Mental illnesses, including depression or anxiety
How Maternity Addiction Affects Mother, Child
Maternity addiction can bring a host of problems. Everything the expectant mother eats will come into contact with the child as it passes through the placenta, which is where the baby receives oxygen, food, and vital nutrients for proper development. Women who abuse drugs often have poor health and eating habits that accompany their drug use. These lifestyle habits also play a role in the baby’s health.
Addictive substances used during this fragile time increases complications such as:
- Placenta problems
- Deep vein thrombosis (when blood clots form deep in a vein in the lower leg, thigh, pelvis, or arm)
- Antepartum hemorrhage (bleeding from the birth canal before the baby is born)
Substance use in pregnancy can also cause miscarriage, when a woman unexpectedly loses the baby, or cause her to deliver the baby preterm, which happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Some of the effects of maternal addiction can expose a baby to conditions that will impact the child long after arrival into the world.
Expectant mothers who use opiates, marijuana, and cocaine while pregnant could have infants who are drowsy, anxious, or jittery and irritable. Newborns can experience severe withdrawal symptoms within 24 to 72 hours after they are born. This is because their brains and nervous systems are adjusting to the absence of chemicals during this period.
The ever-growing list of harmful or potentially harmful substances includes prescription medications and medicines bought over-the-counter at a pharmacy or retail store. According to the Merck Manual, “more than 50 percent of pregnant women take prescription or nonprescription (over-the-counter) drugs or use social drugs (such as tobacco and alcohol) or illicit drugs at some time during pregnancy, and use of drugs during pregnancy is increasing.”
All of these can affect an unborn fetus, so be sure to check first with a trusted health professional or licensed medical specialist who can offer guidance.
How Different Kinds of Drugs Affect the Brain, Body
It’s important to understand the brain’s messaging system, to learn the way psychoactive drugs work. Your nervous system runs throughout your entire body, and it’s controlled by your brain. Everything from your conscious thoughts to your blood pressure is controlled through this system. Psychoactive drugs are chemicals that change your brain function by altering perception, consciousness, mood, cognition, and behavior. They do this by affecting your messaging system.
Your brain and body communicate through a system of nerve cells, which are called neurons. These neurons pass messages using chemicals called neurotransmitters. When two neurons come together, they pass the neurotransmitters across a gap between the cells called a synapse.
Think of this process as a relay race and the synapse as where the hand-off takes place. The sending neuron releases chemical neurotransmitters, which attach to specific receptors on the receiving neuron. Each type of chemical will attach to a different receptor. Once the chemical is on the receptor it can do one of three things:
- Act as an agonist, causing it to excite whatever that receptors function is.
- Act as a partial agonist, still exciting the receptor but not as efficiently and a full agonist.
- Act as an antagonist, stopping the receptor’s function and blocking other chemicals from activating it.
This is the process that is primarily affected by drugs. Your body’s receptors exist to bind with naturally occurring neurotransmitters in the brain. However, drugs can either mimic existing chemicals and bind to the receptors themselves or affect the efficiency of naturally occurring chemicals. Psychoactive drugs can be a tremendous help in remedying chemical imbalances or relieving symptoms caused by neurochemical processes like pain. However, they can also cause problems if they are overused or abused.
Drug dependence happens when this chemical process is overexploited. If you take a psychoactive drug for too long or in excessive amounts, it could cause your brain to start to rely on the drug to maintain your neurochemical balance. It might stop producing certain natural chemicals that have the same effect as the drug or start producing other chemicals to counteract the drug.
If you suddenly start using smaller doses of the drug or stop using it together, you will experience symptoms of withdrawal. This is when your brain chemistry suddenly becomes unbalanced, causing symptoms that can range from unpleasant to potentially deadly.
Finally, drug overdose occurs when your body is flooded with more of a drug than it can handle. Your body can handle some drugs in large amounts, like marijuana, without the threat of a fatal overdose. However, other substances like opioids can kill if you take much more than an appropriate dose.
Not all drugs are created equal or affect the brain and body the same since all of the substances have different chemical makeups. Still, most drugs, whether legal or illegal, change how the brain works. Excessive, chronic, or long-term use is sure to affect the body. Here, we take a quick look at how several drugs affect the brain and other parts of the body.
Depressants cause the brain to slow down. Drinking alcohol in the early years while the brain is still forming can put people age 18 and younger at greater risk of having memory problems and other alcohol-related problems in life. Generally, depressants, which also include prescription benzodiazepine medications such as Xanax, Valium, and barbiturates are all central nervous system depressants.
When depressants are misused or abused, the effects on the brain can exhibit in the following ways:
- Slurred speech
- Poor vision
- Coordination problems
- Sleep disturbances
- Slow reaction times
- Slowed breathing
- Concentration difficulties
Stimulants speed up the nervous system and increase brain activity. These drugs also produce too much dopamine, making users more alert and giving them more energy. The brain comes to rely on drugs to get its “feel-good chemicals” and stops producing them on its own. Long-term stimulant use can permanently rewire the brain and affect other areas, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Addiction sets in with repeated use. When stimulant abuse stops, users can enter into withdrawal as a result of their abstinence. Examples of stimulants include the prescription drugs Adderall and Ritalin and the illegal drugs cocaine, synthetic marijuana, methamphetamine, bath salts, and ecstasy.
Heroin and Opioids
Heroin quickly enters the brain and binds to the opioid receptors on cells that are located to areas, including those that are linked to the feelings of pain and pleasure as well as those that control heart rate, breathing, and sleeping. The drugs mimic the brain’s natural chemicals, but they do not activate nerve cells in the same manner as a natural neurotransmitter does. Like other drugs, heroin and opioids also flood the brain’s reward center with dopamine.
Dissociative drugs, such as PCP (phencyclidine), ketamine, and DXM (dextromethorphan), cause users to have distortions in their sight and hearing and make them feel like they are floating and detached from reality or even their own bodies. They disrupt glutamate throughout the brain at certain types of receptors, according to NIDA. Glutamate, it says, is a chemical that plays a significant role in cognition, emotion, and the perception of pain. PCP changes how dopamine works. According to NIDA, “Use of dissociative drugs can also cause anxiety, memory loss, and impaired motor function, including body tremors and numbness.”
Hallucinogens are drugs that cause users to have hallucinations, which are distortions in a person’s perceptions of reality. Examples include ayahuasca, DMT (dimethyltryptamine), (Peyote (mescaline), LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide), and psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine). They are not addictive, but that makes them no less dangerous. Long-term or chronic hallucinogen use can cause psychosis, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders. NIDA writes, “Research suggests that hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord.” Hallucinogens can interfere with both serotonin and glutamate.
Inhalants are chemicals that users breathe in through the nose or mouth with a paper bag or other source.
The breathing in of chemicals is known as “huffing.” The use of these items, which include paint thinners, glue, gases, aerosol sprays and more, are popular among young people who want to get high. The items are easily accessible because the cost is so low and they’re easy to experiment with and disguise since many of them are everyday items found around the house.
Teenagers make up the majority of the population of people who use inhalants. NIDA writes that inhalants affect the central nervous system and slow down activity in the brain.
Short-term effects are similar to those of alcohol intoxication.
- Slurred or distorted speech
- Coordination problems
Inhalants users may also experience hallucinations or delusions. Brain damage can result if oxygen flow to the brain is disrupted.
Treating Drug Addiction
NIDA recognizes numerous approaches to evidence-based addiction treatment, ranging from detox and group therapy through an outpatient program to long-term, medically supervised residential treatment. The foundation of addiction treatment, however, begins with detox. It is important to work with medical professionals who can monitor withdrawal symptoms and provide medication to ease the most intense symptoms if needed.
Some drugs, like alcohol, tobacco, and opioids, have associated medication-assisted treatments (MAT) available to taper the body off physical dependence on the substance.
This is not replacing one addictive drug with another but instead used to ease the brain and body’s transition from relying on the chemical’s presence to achieving a normal balance of neurotransmitters without an intoxicant.
Tapering with MAT may mean months, or even years, of taking a prescription medication to ease withdrawal, but during this time, therapists will work with you to change your behaviors toward drugs.
This reduces the risk of relapse while also keeping you medically stable.
Once detox is complete, or a long-term tapering process has been established, you should proceed to a rehabilitation program.
These programs provide counseling that focuses on behavioral change, so you can manage stress or triggers, learn what may cause stress, and better understand how specific behaviors have developed based on genetics or personal history. When you understand why your addiction developed, it can be easier to avoid substances in the future, and when you understand how to find better outlets for stress that can prompt compulsive behaviors, you can lead a healthier life.
There are many different approaches to therapy.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Motivational incentives and contingency management
- The Matrix Model
- The 12-step model
- Family therapy
- Behavioral therapy for adolescents
NIDA states that you should remain in a rehabilitation program for 90 days, or three months, at a minimum. This might involve a combination of outpatient individual and group therapy, short-term residential treatment followed by outpatient group therapy, or long-term inpatient treatment. There are many approaches to fulfilling this minimum time for a behavioral change.
Are You Struggling With Substance Abuse Addiction?
If you are worried about how long you can stay in any program, speak with an addiction specialist at Delphi Behavioral Health Group at 844-913-2009. We can help you manage resources so you get the best combination of treatment approaches available.
Treatment should be readily available, and no single treatment is right for everyone. Help for co-occurring mental or behavioral illnesses is also a crucial part of treatment, and diagnosing associated illnesses like HIV, hepatitis B or C, pneumonia, tuberculosis, cancer, heart disease, or conditions related to substance abuse is essential so the individual receives coordinated medical care.
Even if you do not have extreme physical, mental, social, or financial difficulties from abusing substances, you may struggle with drug addiction, and this addiction will likely deepen over time. Evidence-based treatments are available, so get help today.