It is very challenging to try to explain addiction. Especially as a concerned loved one, it can be difficult to explain to yourself (let alone to others) how your child, your boyfriend, your sibling, became addicted to drugs. On the outside looking in, many people feel that substance addiction is a:
- Bad choice, in which someone should just say “no”
- Bad habit that just needs to be kicked
- Weakness, that someone can’t overcome the withdrawal symptoms
- Moral failing, that the person has given up
The fact is, drug addiction is none of the above. It is a chronic disease of the brain that cannot be overcome overnight, with a simple “no” or change of mind. If you are asking “why do people get addicted to drugs” or “why did my child get addicted to drugs,” it’s important to recognize this first.
More than likely, you have other questions like, “How did this happen?” Your loved one may have been raised right, on a solid moral foundation or in a good home, but still started using drugs. The truth is, there are many reasons that people use drugs, and many reasons that people become addicted. It’s important you do not blame yourself, or your loved one, before understanding the facts.
Often as concerned loved ones, we find ourselves asking things like, “Why do some people get addicted to drugs, and others do not?” It’s a valid question, and many people who use drugs don’t think they will become addicted. The truth is, anyone can become addicted to drugs, and there a variety of factors that put them at greater risk. Common risk factors, or potential causes of drug addiction, include:
- Stressful early life experiences, such as being abused or experiencing trauma
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- Genetic vulnerability (i.e. other family members struggle with addiction)
- Prenatal exposure to alcohol or other drugs while in the womb
- Lack of parental supervision or monitoring during adolescence
- Association with drug-using peers, or peer-pressure from friends or social circles
- Mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety
As you can see, there are a mix of genetic and environmental influences that can make a person more vulnerable to addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, genetics account for about half of a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction. So, environmental risk factors also play a big role: things like stress, trauma, abuse, lack of education, low-income neighborhoods, high school parties.
People who use drugs during adolescence are also more likely to develop a drug addiction, because their brain is still in development. Exposing the brain to drugs during this critical time can leave lasting changes in the brain, and create greater risk for dependence down the road. Research shows that almost 70 percent of adolescents who try an illicit drug before age 13 develop a clinical addiction within the next seven years. Those between ages 18 and 25 are also at great risk, while their brains mature. In fact, 9 out of 10 people who are battling substance addiction started using before their 18th birthday.
Science has helped explain exactly how drug abuse affects people, and how addiction comes to be, over time. Through imaging and other advancing technologies, researchers have been able to actually “see” how substance addiction works in the brain.
It all starts with prolonged drug use. When a person uses drug repeatedly, it changes how the brain functions. Over time, the drug use becomes compulsive, not recreational or voluntary. It is no longer a choice to use drugs – it is no longer in their control. How is this, exactly?
When a person uses drugs, the brain releases a “pleasure chemical,” called dopamine. This results in a euphoric bodily response and mental state, in which the user feels good or high. When the brain experiences this repeatedly, it becomes reliant on that feel-good behavior. And so, it “hardwires” those euphoric, drug-using experiences into its circuitry – and using the drugs becomes its highest priority.
These are physical changes that take place. The brain’s reward system (a primitive system that exists to ensure we seek what we need) gets hardwired to prioritize drug use above all else – eating, sleeping, family, academics. Even when the drugs stop producing pleasure for a user (which happens over time, when a user becomes tolerant on them), the brain continues pushing this need. It produces intense cravings, which occur in the same part of the brain as one’s survival instinct. Thus, acting on these cravings (i.e. using drugs) becomes an overwhelming and dire need – the brain thinks it needs the drugs to function and survive.
At the same time the brain’s reward system is affected, so are the parts of the brain dedicated to judgment, decision-making, learning, and self-control. These physical changes make drug use even harder to quit, as a person loses their ability to make rational decisions and control impulses.
Although drug addiction creates physical and chronic changes in the brain, there is good news. The brain can be re-wired again. Substance addiction is actually very treatable and manageable. Of course, this can’t happen overnight. Much like it took time for the person’s brain to re-wire in favor of drug use, it takes time for the brain to re-wire back to a healthier state.
Overcoming addiction requires modified routines and thought processes. It means replacing drug use with healthy behaviors like exercise and cooking. It also involves re-framing a person’s outlook and definition of drug use – it is not a matter of survival, but a process of destruction. This requires education, combined with cognitive therapy to get to the root of their drug-using behaviors.
Over time, the brain can be taught to crave healthier behaviors and to dismiss drug cravings by considering the outcomes and alternatives. It can be taught to seek and prioritize meaningful relationships and activities, rather than drugs and alcohol. It can be taught this through abstinence, ongoing therapy, active management, cognitive reframing, and professional support.
Re-Framing Our Thinking
While professional drug treatment can help a person re-wire their brain back to a healthier state, we as loved ones have some re-wiring to do as well. We need to re-frame the way we think about addiction. By thinking that addiction is a choice, or a moral failing, we only prevent the ones we love from seeking help. In many cases of addiction, the person does not have the control or willpower to quit drugs and get help. They need your support and compassion to get there.
To learn more about the risk factors of substance addiction, or to learn about Turnbridge’s young adult drug treatment programs in Connecticut, please do not hesitate to contact us at 877-581-1793.