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Understanding Drug Addiction

Although the initial decision to take drugs or alcohol is usually voluntary, there is a common misconception that drug addiction is indicative of moral or ethical failure, or a lack of willpower to resist the use of drugs or "do the right thing." When someone is suffering from addiction, the brain is functioning differently than it did prior to the addiction. Drugs change the way the brain functions, specifically in the mesolimbic dopamine system (the brain's reward center), making it extremely challenging for an addict to resist compulsive urges and cravings for more drugs. Because compulsive drug use alters this system, urges and cravings for an addict's drug of choice rarely completely go away, even after years of sobriety.

Addiction literally takes the power of choice away from addicts, and they become slaves to the substances they abuse. Once people have become addicts, they are often addicts for life whether their disease is active or in remission. There is no known cure for addiction, only treatment and a lifetime of practicing healthy behaviors and resisting cravings if and when they arise. With treatment and continuing support, addicts can often successfully learn to manage their addictions and continue to resist the urge to use again (relapse). Like cancer and other diseases, relapse is common in the addiction and recovery process.

The concept of relapse is difficult for people to fathom when an addict has suffered significant negative consequences as a result of their addiction (such as jail or prison, job loss, divorce, failing health, loss of custody of children, financial hardship, etc.) and then gets clean. Why would they ever go back to using again?  The following are a few of the challenges addicts face in avoiding relapse:

  • For addicts, drugs are like food or water. They seem essential to survival and suddenly living without drugs is an extraordinary challenge.
  • Many addicts feel that doing drugs is easier than facing reality, especially when reality is particularly difficult or stressful.
  • Because addiction can change the chemistry of the brain, addicts who have gotten sober often experience an extended period of depression and overall malaise in the beginning of their sobriety, known as Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). It is not at all uncommon for them to want to use just to feel "normal" again.
  • When addicts are drug-seeking, they are virtually incapable of thinking beyond the drugs. They experience selective memory, literally blocking out unpleasant memories of past negative consequences, and only focus on using again.

Understanding Drug Addiction

Addiction is not a disease of reason. yet people have a hard time understanding drug addiction and why addicts don't just stop using as a result of the negative consequences they experience associated with their drug use. The reality is that drug addiction is a disease that drives compulsively seeking and using drugs, even when an addict has a true desire to quit using. Some people become addicted the first time using drugs; others can engage in social or recreational drug use without becoming addicted. There is no single root cause of drug addiction; however, there are some commonalities among addicts' mental health and environmental influence:

  • Persons with depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, or other mental health issues are more likely to take drugs to escape the undesirable effects of their symptoms.
  • Children of addicted parents are far more likely to use drugs because of their environment as well as genetic predisposition.
  • People struggling with low-self esteem or lack of confidence are at increased risk of drug addiction.
  • People with easy access to drugs, either through family members, friends, or medical relationships, are more likely to abuse and become addicted to drugs.
  • People in high-stress and high-pressure environments (such as educational pressures and demanding careers) are more susceptible to addiction.

Although not everyone with the above environments and conditions will become a drug addict, people in these groups are more at risk to use drugs and become addicted to them. Not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted. Although, for many, first-time use can be an addiction's beginning. PubMed Health has identified four progressive stages of drug use and addiction, with a faster progression more likely for teens and young adults than adults aged 30 and older.

  • Experimental Use This stage is often encountered during early teenage years and is usually a result of peer pressure for recreational use in groups or at parties, or as a form of rebellion from parents and structure.
  • Regular or Frequent Use Drug use at this stage is usually several times a week. During this stage, tolerance for drugs increases, requiring more of the substance to obtain the same high. Doing drugs alone may begin now, as well as isolation from friends and family. It is in this stage that many users will begin to try to hide their increasing drug use.
  • Daily Use Daily drug use is a stage that is characterized by a lack of interest in most anything not having to do with drugs. At this stage, critical changes in the user's brain have occurred, and drug consumption is a top priority. Dangerous and illegal activities to obtain and use drugs become a part of life, and addiction becomes entrenched.
  • Addiction This is the ultimate in unmanageability when the addict cannot face daily life without drugs. Negative consequences like arrests, personal injury, abuse, and broken relationships are prevalent. Addiction treatment is necessary to begin the process of regaining a sense of sober normality.

Addictive behaviors are considered those that exacerbate and perpetuate continued drug use. Even without current drug use, these addictive behaviors can make lives just as unmanageable as addiction and lead to relapse for an addict in recovery. With or without current drug use, if the negative and destructive behaviors are not addressed, sustained sobriety is virtually impossible. Some examples of addictive behaviors:

  • Blaming  A classic behavior of addiction is blaming. "It's everyone else's fault." Addicts do not take responsibility for the unmanageability in their own lives, no matter how bad things get. Arrests are blamed on an over-zealous police officer. Continued use of drugs is blamed on friends or family members who upset the addict. Blaming is a defense mechanism employed by addicts to avoid addressing their faults and mistakes. Even when drugs are no longer being used, blaming is a dangerous behavior because it allows one to have bad behavior without self consequence and accountability.
  • Shame There is a big difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is identifying an activity or action as being wrong or bad. Shame is identifying oneself as wrong or bad. For active addicts and addicts in recovery, shame can lead to feelings of self-loathing and unworthiness, perpetuating further drug use or relapse.
  • Terminal Uniqueness Terminal uniqueness separates an addict from everyone else and makes him or her "special" and in need of exemptions. Terminal uniqueness is what tells an addict that there are important differences between themselves and everyone else in their position, and that they should be allowed to do things differently from the rest of the world. Terminal uniqueness is taking the wonder of one's own uniqueness and making it destructive. As far as drug addiction treatment is concerned, are all unique, but not special.

Although addictive behaviors may or may not be an indicator of current drug use, these behaviors are warning signs. Addicts in recovery who are exhibiting these kinds of behaviors should seek additional or alternative support and treatment to maintain sobriety. The signs of addictive behavior are warnings of a potential relapse to come; however, there are more concrete signs of current drug addiction and serious indicators of a need for treatment.

Signs of Drug Addiction

Some common signs of drug addiction include:

  • Change in appearance
  • Change in friends and social circles
  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor health
  • Minimizing use or consumption of drug(s)
  • Legal troubles
  • Financial difficulties
  • Isolation

The devastating effect of addiction on addicts and their family are overwhelming, but the damage doesn't stop there. According to the National institute on Drug Abuse the overall cost of substance abuse in the US, including productivity and health related costs exceeds $600 Billion annually. Recognizing the significant economical liability, a great deal of research focuses on the treatment of drug addiction. We now know that properly tailored treatment with aftercare and continued support can make the lifesaving difference in sustained sobriety.

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug addiction, please contact us by filling out a free confidential online assessment or call us at 1 to speak with one of our trained counselors who will help you to find the most effective and appropriate treatment available. We are here to help.

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