The facts about people suffering from substance use disorder often get misconstrued and one of the most common misconceptions is that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could quit using drugs simply by choosing to. That simply isn’t true. The fact is, drug addiction is a complex disease, and recovery takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Since drugs physically and chemically alter the brain, this makes quitting difficult— and at times, impossible, even for those who want to. On the bright side, Lakeview Health is a data-driven, residential drug and alcohol rehab that uses extensive research to understand how these substances can affect the brain. In response to this research, we have developed successful programs and proven treatments to help people recover from drug and alcohol addiction. We have also answered many of the commonly asked questions about substance abuse below.
Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease—people in recovery from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of not taking the drug.
There are always cases where a person relapses, but relapse does not mean that treatment failed. Effective aftercare programs should include ongoing treatment and should be adjusted based on how the patient responds. Treatment plans need to be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s changing needs.
Substance abuse affects the brain’s “reward circuit” by flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. Under normal circumstances, this reward system controls the body’s ability to feel pleasure and motivates a person to repeat behaviors needed to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. This over-stimulation of the reward circuit causes the intensely pleasurable “high” that can lead people to take a drug again and again.
As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine by making less of it and/or reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high they felt when first taking the drug—an effect known as tolerance. They might take more of the drug, trying to achieve the same dopamine high. It can also cause them to get less pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, like food or social activities.
Long-term use also causes changes in other brain chemical systems and circuits as well, affecting functions that include:
Despite being aware of these harmful outcomes, many people who use drugs continue to take them, which is the nature of addiction.
No one factor can predict if a person will become addicted to drugs. A combination of factors influences risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction. For example:
The genes that people are born with account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may also influence risk for drug use and addiction.
A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to economic status and general quality of life. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, stress, and parental guidance can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of drug use and addiction.
Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction risk. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to addiction.
As with most other chronic diseases, treatment for addiction generally isn’t technically a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed. People who are recovering from an addiction will be at risk for relapse for years and possibly for their whole lives. Studies show that combining addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy ensures the best chance of success for most patients. Treatment approaches tailored to each patient’s drug use patterns and any co-occurring medical, mental, and social problems can lead to a successful and continued recovery.
More importantly, drug use and addiction are preventable. Prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are useful for preventing or diminishing drug use and addiction. Although personal experiences and cultural attributes tend to affect drug use trends, when young people view drug use as harmful, drug use is avoided. Education and outreach are key to helping people understand the possible risks of drug use. Teachers, parents and health care providers have the most important roles in teaching young people and preventing drug use and addiction.