When someone chooses to try drugs, that is a choice. But as they continue to use that drug, it can become a compulsion — they no longer have control over when, where, how, or how much they use. Despite seeing negative consequences in their life, they feel unable (or may seem unwilling) to quit. The drugs have rewired this person’s brain to intensely need the drugs to feel “normal” and have hijacked their natural sense of self-control. This is drug addiction. It’s not a moral failing or lack of willpower. It’s a disease!
What Is Drug Addiction?
Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease that involves the development of strong neural pathways in the brain that lead to drug use. When a person performs an action more than once, the brain builds a nerve pathway for that action. This pathway becomes a short-cut. We often call these habits.
Once something becomes a habit, people do it automatically. Some habits are good, like remembering to turn the water off after washing hands. But some habits can be very bad for us. They become compulsions that we no longer control even though we’re hurting ourselves and others.
A person who suffers from addiction has unintentionally built and reinforced many of these pathways in the brain leading to using drugs. For example, a person feels sad. They may have created a pathway (a habit) in their brains so that they use drugs when they feel sad. They may also have a path for going to a party, getting off work, waking up in the morning, being disappointed, visiting a certain place or person.
Using the drug becomes an automatic response to these “triggers.” And these compulsions become so strong that it hurts physically and emotionally when people don’t follow through.
What Are the Dangers of Drug Addiction?
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the younger a person begins using drugs, the more likely they are to experience serious physical and mental health issues from it. 1
Drug addiction causes harm in many areas of health and life.
- The Brain – Addiction creates and reinforces the neural pathways (habits) that lead to drug use. It changes how the brain’s hormonal systems work. Now, they feel hormonally imbalanced and uncomfortable when they’re not using their drug of choice. It can impact how memories and emotions are processed, making it more difficult to deal with daily life.
- The Mind – Because it’s harder to manage emotions, life’s stressors feel more stressful than they would otherwise. It’s harder to think straight. Often, mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, paranoia, and even psychosis develop.
- The Body – Not only does a person have the potential of overdose. They are slowly poisoning their body. Over a short time, organs will begin to shut down. The body won’t function as it should. People often develop thinning skin and sores that won’t heal, making them susceptible to infection.
- Unborn Babies – If the drug addiction doesn’t kill the baby, the child is likely to be born with physical and mental abnormalities that the child will have to live with as long as they live.
- Money – People who abuse drugs will usually make less money overall. And because addiction causes a loss of ability to control oneself, buying drugs becomes the number one priority, so it becomes hard to hold down a job and pay the bills.
- Relationships – It’s emotionally painful to be in a relationship with someone who has an addiction. Eventually, people, even those who love this person more than anything, will have to leave to protect themselves.
- Children – Children who grow up in a home where one or both parents is abusing drugs or alcohol are much more likely to abuse drugs and then develop their own addiction. Children in these homes are also likely to develop mental health and behavioral disorders and impaired cognitive ability. Children know what’s going on. They see it even if their parents try to hide it, and it does impact them.2
These all seem like compelling reasons to quit, don’t they? The thing about drug addiction is that it overrules a person’s best judgment. So they can read this list, and they can see all of this happening in their own lives in real-time. But they still can’t give up their drug of choice.
The compulsion is too strong once it becomes an addiction.
Why Do Some People Get Addicted, But Others Don’t?
Part of addiction appears to be in the DNA. Some people were born with a greater likelihood they will become addicted. This does not, however, mean that anyone with these genes will develop a drug addiction. Many factors must come together in the right way for someone to become addicted.
Children are learning from the moment they’re born. And they keep learning. They learn how to be and act from family, friends, social media, community, and culture. Some elements in one or more of these environments may glorify or encourage drug use and abuse. Is the influence to use drugs is greater than the influence not to? Then they’re more likely to start down the path to addiction early.
Additionally, environmental factors like physical, sexual, emotional abuse, trauma, or simply having access because a family member or caregiver is using may increase the chances someone develops an addiction.
How Early They Started
In the tweens up through the early 20s, the brain is actively developing. During this time, people are learning how to navigate social situations and relationships. They’re figuring out how to deal with disappointment, disagreements, and stress. They’re developing skills that will allow them to live independently and succeed in life.
Those who used drugs during these years to “cope” with life may not have developed important life skills. So the drug may feel like the only thing that gives them any relief from painful emotions. Fortunately, people can learn these skills as an adult. That’s a big part of addiction treatment.
Presence of Mental Health Disorders
If a person has a mental health disorder, they may be more likely to develop an addiction. Certain conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may increase risk.
And the person with the disorder doesn’t even have to be the one with the addiction. Often, people who grow up with someone who has a mental health disorder develop an addiction.
Can Drug Addiction Be Cured?
Drug addiction is a chronic disease, a lot like asthma, diabetes, or heart disease. Once a person develops it, it changes how their brain functions. So cravings for the drug will never completely go away. But just like any chronic disease, someone who is aware of their condition can learn to manage cravings and emotions so that they have very little power over them.
Sometimes people are sober for years, then they experience a great loss and fall back into addiction. So it’s so important to realize that anyone can relapse. But this doesn’t mean a person can’t get through a very tough time without relapsing. They can learn the mental skills they need to overcome addiction and experience sustainable recovery. And it helps to build a network of support around them. That way they always have someone they can talk to when they’re considering relapsing.
Can Drug Addiction Be Prevented?
Yes. Drug addiction can be prevented, but no prevention method is 100%. Studies have clearly shown parents have a strong impact on whether their children abuse drugs.3
Positive role models, community support, and media portrayal can all reduce the risk that someone develops an addiction.4
Additionally, people who know they are more likely to become addicted can choose not to use drugs — even a little. Or if they do and realize this may become a problem for them, they can choose to stop before an addiction develops. That, of course, is easier said than done. It takes commitment. But it certainly can prevent drug addiction.
Is Addiction Recovery Possible?
Absolutely. People do recover. And people do stay in recovery long-term. However, it’s nearly impossible for someone who has gotten to the point of addiction to recover without significant professional support and ideally, support from family and friends as well.
What Is Drug Addiction Treatment?
In medical detoxification, a person completes the withdrawal and detox process under the 24/7 compassionate care of licensed professionals. These skilled professionals help a person safely eliminate the toxins that have built up in their system while preventing them from using when the cravings become overwhelming.
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)
During a MAT program, the person with the addiction receives a prescribed alternative to their drug of choice in a controlled setting. This allows a person to slowly detox without withdrawals or cravings. While receiving the alternative, they complete an addiction treatment program, which includes behavioral therapy.
As they learn to modify their behavior and live a sober lifestyle, the dosage is lowered slowly until the person no longer needs the prescription. MAT is not available for all addictions, but medications can be used to help manage withdrawal symptoms of most drugs.
Evidence-Based Treatment for Drug Addiction
Evidence-based treatments have been proven by science to effectively help people recover from active addictions, such as:
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Trauma-centered care
- Dual diagnosis care
- 12-Step Immersion
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Motivational Interviewing
- Individual, group, and family therapy
- Gender-responsive care that recognizes the differences between genders that can contribute to how, when, and why they use
Holistic Therapeutic Treatment
Addiction is biological, social, spiritual, and psychological. A person who is suffering from addiction is dealing with complex emotions and may face mental, physical, and other challenges. Holistic treatment treats the whole person and recognizes that all of this is connected. To experience life-long recovery a person needs to heal wholely. Holistic therapies work with evidence-based treatments to facilitate this whole body-mind-spirit healing.
Holistic therapies may include:
- Meditation and mindfulness activities
- Yoga and gym time
- Music therapy
- Recreational activities
- Christian-based treatment for those who would benefit from Christ-based healing
Full Continuum of Care
Rehab is a journey that starts with detox, the first step to becoming substance free. In a safe and supervised environment, a person begins to heal from the immediate effects of addiction.
From detox, a person will enter a residential treatment program where a team professional helps them set meaningful recovery goals and develop a personalized plan for recovery. They begin working on this plan with the 24/7 support and care of professionals. In this space, they can safely heal, develop life skills, and reach a place of hopefulness for the future along with a plan to make that hopeful future a reality.
Upon graduating from residential treatment, they will move to outpatient care. They will live at home with family support or in a transitional living home and continue to attend outpatient therapy and treatment. This allows a person to practice what they’ve learned in rehab in a “real world” setting. At the same time, they’re spending significant time each week continuing their work with professional guidance. This allows people to adjust to sober life and turn what they learned in rehab into healthy lifelong habits that allow them to thrive in recovery
Outpatient treatment after a residential treatment program can significantly increase the chance of sustained recovery.
Aftercare includes alumni addiction support services. These ongoing support and services to individuals who’ve completed residential or outpatient programs. This may include community resource access, recovery coaching, and a recovery community network.
How Do People Pay for Drug Addiction Treatment?
Those who enter rehab often pay using a combination of several sources:
- Private Insurance
- Private Pay
- Financial help from friends and family
- Payment plans
Embarking on the Addiction Treatment Journey
Northbound offers individualized treatment that addresses the needs of the whole person. We apply evidence-based treatment and a continuum of care that have shown that they can help those living with addiction overcome it and achieve a fulfilling life.
To learn more about how to set recovery goals and achieve a successful life beyond addiction, see why recovery starts here.
1Journal of the American Medical Association (1998). Substance Abuse in Children.
2Frontiers in Psychology (2016). Parental Substance Abuses As an Early Traumatic Event.
3National Institute of Health (2013). Parental Influence on Substance Abuse.
4National Institute on Drug Abuse (2014). Lessons from Prevention Research.