You or a loved one may struggle with addiction, or you know someone who does. You may think addiction is a sign of their character or is their own fault; that they lack the will or moral values to stop taking drugs or alcohol. However, while a person may have voluntarily started to use drugs or alcohol, the nature of these substances changes how their brains and bodies works, sometimes only after one or two uses. Their brain becomes completely dependent on the substance, making the person seek out the substance compulsively. Addiction can make it near impossible for them to quit on their own and, even if they do, they’ll always face the risk of relapse.
Addiction is a disease and any age or gender is susceptible to it. It is a disease that cannot be treated simply with willpower or moral. It needs to be treated by medical professionals, with a personalized treatment plan that addresses not only addiction, but why a person was susceptible to addiction in the first place.
How addiction works
When a person takes an addictive substance, such as cocaine or an opioid, the drug often targets the brain’s reward center. This center makes us feel good when we do pleasurable activities, such as eating or hanging out with friends, and it encourages us to do the activity again. It does this by producing a chemical called dopamine, which the brain normally regulates to keep us in balance.
That balance is lost when a person uses drugs. When a drug enters this brain, it makes it flood with dopamine at unnatural levels, producing a pleasurable, euphoric high. It feels so good that the brain is almost immediately inclined to repeat the action again and again. This is the start of addiction.
Over time, however, the brain becomes dependent on the substance, specifically in that it no longer produces dopamine on its own, instead relying on the drug to do it. A person may not feel any pleasure (or anything at all) from everyday activities; the only time they’ll feel anything is when they’re taking the drug. That doesn’t last long either though; the brain eventually lessens the amount of dopamine produced when on a drug, which means a person has to take more and more of the drug just to feel the same effect. This is when addiction truly sets in as the brain starts “forcing” a person to take the drug at the expense of everything else.
The drug changes other parts of the brain, affecting a person’s ability to learn, make judgements and their decision-making process. It can affect their memory, cause paranoia and hallucinations, and make them behave erratically. There can be serious health problems too, such as alcoholism causing liver disease, or methamphetamine causing “meth mouth,” where a person’s teeth decay and crack.
Like any disease that isn’t treated, addiction can often lead to death.
What causes addiction
Some people are more likely to become addicted to a drug than others. What are some of the factors that make a person more susceptible to addiction? There are three to consider.
- Environmental factors: If a person has a family history of drug or alcohol abuse, they’re more likely to become addicted. Their peers may influence them as well; if their friends take drugs, a child is more likely to try drugs, putting them at risk for addiction.
- Biological factors: Men more than women are more likely to be susceptible to addiction. A person who suffers from a mental health disorder is more likely to struggle with addiction, too.
- Development factors: A teenager who is still growing mentally and physically is more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as drug use. This makes them more likely to become addicted, as the younger you are, the more you are susceptible to it.