Understanding Drug Addiction
One of the biggest risks of substance abuse is that it often results in drug addiction. Despite affecting millions of Americans each year, this disease is often misunderstood.
“A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth.”
—Dr. George Koob, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Let’s take a look at what drug addiction is—and how it can be treated.
What is Addiction?
Addiction is a disease of the brain characterized by repeated compulsive behavior to continue a certain behavior.
For a person to be considered addicted to drugs, three things need to be present:
- A strong compulsion to continue using a drug;
- An inability to limit how much of a drug is used; and
- A sense of anxiety if access to a drug is blocked.
Drug addiction is life-threatening due to the impact that drugs have on the body.
Long-term use can result in significant health problems and permanent physical damage to the body, including death by overdose.
If you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction, there are many treatment programs available to help you get your life back on track before it’s too late.
How Addiction Happens in the Brain
Drug addiction can happen due to one of two behaviors:
- Excitement. The user takes a drug because it gives them a rush; the user is excited to use the drug in the future and looks forward to it.
- Avoidance. The user takes the drug because it makes them stop feeling a certain way (sad, anxious, etc.); the user takes the drug in the future to numb out negative sensations.
In both scenarios, the drug user can get stuck in a cycle of drug abuse which can result in addiction. This is also known as substance use disorder.
The drug user may eventually need more of the drug to feel the same effects, and they may also begin to experience strong cravings for the drug. The drug user may also continue using the drug just to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. All of these effects are signs of dependence.
Addiction VS Dependence
Addiction and dependence are not the same but these issues often go hand-in-hand.
Let’s examine the difference between addiction and dependence:
- Compulsive use of a drug in a cyclical pattern despite consequences
- The user’s need for the drug begins to negatively impact social commitments such as work, school, or family
- The user continues drug-seeking behaviors and will seek out the drug by any means necessary
- Developed tolerance to a drug and its effects
- The user needs more of the drug to achieve the same effect as before
- The user may now only take the drug to avoid the negative side effects of withdrawal
Drug dependence will often lead to addiction, but one can also be dependent upon a drug without being addicted. Dependence relates to how the drug interacts with the user’s body whereas addiction relates to how the user’s need for the drug begins to impact the user’s decision-making and day-to-day life.
Both drug addiction and drug dependence can harm the user’s physical and mental health. Numerous side effects can occur, depending on the type of drug being abused, and risk factors vary from person to person depending on individual use factors.
Thankfully, treatment approaches for both dependence and addiction often go hand-in-hand.
Drug Addiction Statistics
According to the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 1.4 million Americans sought treatment for drug addiction in 2019.
Who Does Addiction Affect?
Drug addiction can happen to anyone.
Not all first-time users will become addicted to a substance, and health professionals continue to research why this is the case. So far, research indicates that there are many factors involved in addiction—from a person’s unique brain chemistry to environmental factors that impact the user. There is a positive correlation between illegal drug use (which includes both illicit drug use and prescription drug abuse) and marginalized individuals who may have had more struggles than others throughout their lives.
According to SAMHSA, the largest age group that sought treatment for drug addiction in 2018 was between the ages of 26 and 35. Of the two million drug users who sought treatment that year, 64% were men and 35.9% were women.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) aims to predict the future of drug addiction by watching trends in drug use amongst young people. They report the following statistics:
- Lifetime drug use for 8th graders has steadily increased from 2017 to 2020.
- Lifetime drug use for 10th and 12 graders has not changed dramatically between 2017 and 2020.
- Alcohol use for all groups (8th, 10th, and 12th grades) reached an all-time high in 2020.
- For college-aged students, marijuana use reached an all-time high in 2020.
- While the spike in first-time teen vaping has decreased, overall teen vape use remains steady.
As for overdose, over 70,000 people in the US died in 2019 from drug-related overdoses. While that is certainly not a small number, the data shows that many more people seek treatment than die each year as a result of their addiction. The goal of our site is to help guide you towards that same recovery scenario.
Different Types of Drug Addiction
A person can become addicted to illicit drugs or prescription drugs, but treatment for drug addiction will be relatively similar for both drug types. While drug abuse exists for both types of drugs, there are notable trends among both.
The most commonly abused prescription drugs are painkillers, depressants, and stimulants which include:
On the other hand, the most commonly abused illicit drugs are:
Alcohol and nicotine are also among the most addictive drugs but they are neither prescription nor illegal to consume unless the user is underage.
Drug Addiction Treatment & Support
No matter what your relationship is to addiction, know that there is always hope.
Addiction is a treatable disease and recovery is possible with the help of health professionals and a strong support system.
There are many treatment options available for various levels of addiction and dependence to help you achieve a drug-free life. A healthcare provider can help you come up with a treatment plan that’s right for your individual needs.
There are many types of treatment programs available to help you through addiction recovery. You can read more detail on our recovery page, but here is a general overview of the treatment process:
The overall recovery process will usually begin with some kind of detox program. This will help the drug get out of your system. Going through medical detoxification while under supervision will usually help you avoid the more negative withdrawal side effects.
You will receive care at a treatment center to help you in your early days of sobriety. Typical drug addiction treatment will combine vitals monitoring and drug tests with behavioral therapies. There are both inpatient rehab and outpatient options, including residential treatment. This stage is designed to treat all aspects of addiction by combining psychiatry with physical healthcare to ensure successful sobriety in the future.
After treatment, most recovering addicts will continue to receive support through post-treatment programs that will help them maintain their sobriety and avoid returning to drug use and addiction.
For Friends and Family Members of Addicts
Drug addiction affects more than just the addict themselves.
Friends and family members of a drug addict also deal with negative repercussions as a result of the addict’s behavior. However, there are many resources available to you to help you cope with this process and better understand addiction overall.
From worrying about the addict’s well-being to destructive interactions, addiction can take a major toll on your mental health and wellbeing too. Thankfully there are support groups all over the US for the loved ones of addicts to provide you with guidance and healing.
These groups are available in person and online in the form of group therapy and meetings as well as support forums and chat boards.
What About Relapse?
It is important to remember that relapse is common and doesn’t mean that the treatment has failed you or your loved one.
Addiction is categorized as a chronically relapsing disease, similar to asthma or high blood pressure. While an addict’s treatment is designed to help them avoid returning to drug use, relapse does not indicate failure by any means.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) has the following to say about addiction and relapse:
“Relapse rates for people treated for substance use disorders are compared with those for people treated for high blood pressure and asthma. Relapse is common and similar across these illnesses. Therefore, substance use disorders should be treated like any other chronic illness. Relapse serves as a sign for resumed, modified, or new treatment.”
Frequently Asked Questions About Drug Addiction
What is Addiction?
Addiction is a disease that compels someone to continue to use a drug regardless of how it may impact their lives. An addict will often do anything to continue acquiring the drug.
What are the signs of addiction?
Someone who is addicted to a substance may exhibit the following:
- Change in their behavior or routines
- Changes in their personality
- Poor hygiene
- Financial problems or sudden need for money
What is the difference between dependence and addiction?
Addiction is the compulsion that drives a person to continue to use a drug regardless of any negative consequences. Dependence is what happens when a person’s body needs more of the drug to feel the effects, or when a person continues to take a drug in order to avoid negative side effects of withdrawal.