The Causes and Effects of Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a serious threat to public health in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.6 million Americans over the age of 11 required professional treatment for substance abuse in 2011. Out of this number, 2.3 million — just over 10 percent — actually received treatment at a facility dedicated to treating addiction.

These are sad statistics, and often, reading figures like this tempts people to open up discussions about how addictions are diagnosed and treated in this country, and how they are sometimes ignored. But, it might also be valuable to discuss how addictions actually develop, and the impact that addictions have on both the addict and on that addict’s community. These cause-and-effect discussions might be dire, but they might provide just the kind of spur to action that some families need in order to address a problem unfolding in their midst.

How Addiction Develops

how an addiction developsTo understand the root causes of addiction, it’s important to understand how the use of illicit drugs affects the brain. The brain has a natural system for identifying and reinforcing positive experiences. When a person eats a delicious meal, spends intimate time with a loved one, or curls up in a warm blanket on a cold night, the brain rewards the behavior by releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine. Repeating these experiences reinforces the behavior by teaching the brain to expect those pleasant sensations.

Addictive drugs interfere with the brain’s natural reward circuitry by stimulating the release of dopamine. Drugs like heroin, oxycodone or cocaine trigger the production of the same chemicals that reward positive, healthy activities like eating or exercising. Research from Harvard University shows that repeated use of addictive drugs creates powerful memories of pleasure. The persistence of these drug-related memories makes it hard for addicts to recover without intensive, professional treatment.

As addiction progresses, the brain requires larger doses or more frequent use of drugs to produce the same effects. This stage, known as tolerance, reflects changes in the brain’s sensitivity to pleasurable stimuli. Addicts in early recovery often find that they are unable to experience pleasure from day-to-day activities because the brain is accustomed to the intense stimulation of drugs. One of the greatest challenges of drug rehab is learning how to find satisfaction and fulfillment in everyday life.

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Repeated drug use affects the portions of the brain responsible for judgment, reasoning and impulse control. The addicted brain is driven to seek and use drugs, in spite of the known consequences. The addict is no longer capable of controlling when, where and how much of the drug is used. When attempts to stop using take place, the brain responds by going into withdrawal, a state characterized by intense cravings and obsessive thoughts about getting and using the drug. At the same time, a lack of dopamine can cause depression and anxiety, which trigger a compulsive need to go back to using in order to feel better.

Withdrawal also causes physical symptoms, many of which resemble a bad cold or the flu, such as:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chills
  • Runny nose
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Bone pain

The severe discomfort of drug withdrawal, combined with the brain’s pleasurable memories of drug use, drives the majority of addicts back to using in spite of their best intentions. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services points out that most individuals who are addicted to opiates, cocaine or alcohol will relapse within 12 months after rehab, especially during the first three months after treatment.

For the addict, relapse is not a sign of a flawed character or a lack of willpower, but an indication of the profound effects of drug use on the brain. Before the addict can begin to heal, a period of detoxification is necessary to break the connection between drugs and the brain.

Internal Sources
drug abuseUnderstanding how drug use develops may be interesting, but families might also be interested in understanding whether nature or nurture is responsible for the development of the problem. Sometimes, the nature side seems persuasive.One neurobiological theory of addiction holds that certain people have a genetic predisposition to drug abuse because their brains do not respond normally to everyday rewards. These individuals need more intense stimulation — the kind that drugs provide — in order to feel pleasure. When the drugs are in use, these people may feel a sense of balance that has long eluded them, and they might be more apt to develop an addiction due to the overwhelming pleasure they feel.

Research also suggests that some people with addictions develop them on the same hereditary pathways used by mental illnesses, like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Partnership at Drugfree.org, one out of five American adults met the criteria for some form of mental illness in 2011. Within this group, drug abuse and addiction were three times more common than in the general population. Some people may inherit the genes for these mental illnesses from their parents and then develop companion addictions as they lean on drugs to soothe their distress.

Genetics might also play a protective role in drug abuse, as some genes seem to make some substances less pleasurable. For example, a specific gene has been identified by researchers working with mice that seems to be protective against binge drinking. When mice have this gene, they don’t drink as much, even when the alcohol is available, according to an article in FASEB Journal. Perhaps the gene makes alcohol just unpleasant, or perhaps it boosts feelings of nausea when alcohol is present. Researchers aren’t quite sure, but they do know that this kind of gene could help some people avoid addictions altogether.


Learning to Abuse

Drug AbuseNature’s effects on addiction are powerful, but a person’s home environment and cultural setting may ultimately decide whether a genetic predisposition will lead to drug addiction. For example, children who grow up in a household headed by addicted parents might learn that substance abuse is common in adulthood, and they might learn to lean on substances during dark times. In essence, they learn the pathways of addiction from their parents, regardless of the genes they share.

Similarly, the people addicted individuals spend time with outside the home can be influential. Spending time with using peers makes drug use more likely, as does living in a community in which drug use is common and dealers are prevalent. Living in a sober community with sober peers, on the other hand, might be protective. Those little choices could be key to developing a real substance abuse problem.

Exposure to certain situations might also make an addiction more likely. Stressful life events, like the death of a close relative, could spur a downward spiral into addiction, as might an injury or illness that causes chronic pain. Sometimes, even long-term issues people feel they’ve left behind in childhood continue to impact them in adulthood. For example, statistics from the Child Welfare Information Gateway point to a disturbing relationship between substance abuse and child maltreatment. Research indicates that drug addiction is five times more common in women who were sexually abused as children than in women who were not abused, for example. These traumatic experiences could lead to a lifetime of poor habits.

Even the time at which people experiment with drugs could be key to the development of an addiction. Because the brain is still developing in adolescence, young people who abuse drugs are at high risk of falling into addiction. Young people who wait to experiment until they’re older may be less likely to develop compulsive habits, simply because their brains are more developed.


Addictions in Different Populations

If the nature/nurture argument doesn’t lead to clear-cut answers in terms of vulnerability to addiction, it might be best to examine how people in different age groups come to the abuse of drugs, and how the impact of drugs is felt by people in different walks of life. This might provide a more robust understanding of the impact an abuse issue can have.

For young people, addictions often develop through a combination of peer pressure and curiosity. For example, a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that adolescents who had friends who smoked cigarettes overestimated how much these friends smoked. They also reported that they didn’t feel overt pressure to start smoking, but they didn’t feel pressured to abstain either. If these teens thought everyone around them was smoking a lot, and that they’d feel no pressure to refrain from smoking, it’s easy to see why they’d start. These teens might follow the same path to addictive drugs.

Adults might have this same route to addiction, particularly if their intimate partners use and abuse drugs. Drinking when a partner drinks, or shooting up when a partner is high, just seems charitable, and it might be a way in which couples come together. Addictions can quickly follow.

People from different social classes might follow the same steps as an addiction develops, but the drugs they use might be slightly different. People who have a smaller bank account balance might lean on cheaper drugs like crack cocaine, for example, while people of wealth might use powdered cocaine. Similarly, low-income addicts might drink Everclear or other inexpensive beverages, while wealthy people might spend money on vintage wine or scotch. The addictions are the same, but the targets are different.

Effects of Addictions

No matter what age people might be when an addiction develops, and no matter what social class they might fall into as the addiction unfolds, it’s safe to say that their continued use could lead to disastrous consequences. Often, those consequences are physical in nature.

Many addictive drugs, including alcohol, heroin and prescription painkillers, have a sedative quality to them, so people who take them tend to become sleepy with increasing use. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that one death every 19 minutes can be attributed to prescription drug abuse, and many more could be blamed on illicit drugs like heroin. But even those who keep their lives may struggle with serious health problems that impact the:

  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Kidneys
  • Esophagus
  • Immune system

Some health problems improve with time and increasing sobriety. Those who damage their lungs due to long-term exposure to inhaled drugs, for example, may begin to experience healing as soon as they allow those sensitive tissues to come into contact with clean air on a regular basis. But there are some forms of damage that simply don’t heal with time. People who damage their heart muscles due to cocaine, for example, may live forever with the scars to show from their addictions. Getting sober is just vital, as it’s the best way to ensure that permanent damage doesn’t take hold.

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But the consequences of addiction don’t just stop with a person’s health and well-being. Parents that abuse drugs, for example, may miss out on vital opportunities to counsel their children, and they may inadvertently teach their children how to be successful addicts. Older adults may be so addled that they can’t participate in the raising of their grandchildren, and they may allow vital details of family history to slide away with them. Even single people may ruin their friendships and their chances of love through their continued addiction and abuse.

Substance abuse can also tear a workplace apart. People who use might put their coworkers’ lives in danger if they hop behind the wheel of a piece of heavy equipment while impaired. Users who hold positions of authority may allow clients to be ignored, and they may miss out on vital bidding opportunities, and this could drag the whole success of the company under.

Even communities can be impacted by addictions. Those people who abuse might be tempted to delve into a life of crime, so they can pay for the drugs they use and need, and the residents who don’t use may be victimized over and over again. Addicted people in moneyed communities can also become belligerent and argumentative in public spaces, and they might continually disturb the peace of their neighbors. When people have addictions, they often act out, and everyone pays the price.

Getting Help

detox-helpIf you suspect that someone you love is addicted to drugs, the first step is to seek support — not just for your loved one, but for yourself. In addition to family and friends, look for help from an addiction counselor, social worker or rehab clinic. There you’ll find the strength and knowledge you need to help the person you care about begin the process of recovery. And because addiction affects every member of your household, you’ll also get the necessary education and counseling to rebuild your home life on a stronger foundation.

If the addict is you, don’t give up hope. Addiction is treatable, but most addicts don’t recover alone. Treatment is a multifaceted process that involves healing the body, mind and spirit. With the support of compassionate addiction specialists, you can overcome the barriers to recovery and build a clean, healthy life.

The addiction experts at Alta Mira understand the challenges you face when you’re ready to start recovery. Located near San Francisco, California, we offer premier rehab services in an exclusive setting. With superior clinical care, customized care plans and a proprietary treatment model, we are uniquely equipped to help you build the drug-free life you’re looking for. Contact our admissions team at any time to find out how we can help you find a path to hope.