Can Substance Abuse Lead to Addiction?
Abusing drugs is a problem. If this behavior is done in moderation, though, you can avoid many of the potential harms.
For example, many people have experienced a night where they indulged in too much alcohol. Binge drinking in college, at a wedding, or some other celebration is alcohol abuse and an expected part of life that ends with a few regrettable decisions and feeling sick the next morning.
The problems arise when abuse becomes a regular habit. Before long, abuse begins to transition towards addiction.
Consider addiction as a simple math equation. Abuse plus consistency plus time equals addiction.
There is never a clear line between abuse and addiction. Instead, the movement is gradual as each day, and each use slides you away from the person you once were and towards the addict.
When addiction is in place, your entire life becomes obsessively focused on your drug or drugs of choice. You only think about getting drugs, being high, and how miserable sobriety feels.
But addiction not only changes your thinking, but it also changes your behaviors. Now, you only want to get money, find drugs and use drugs while forgoing anything else in your life that previously brought you joy.
Drugs, Learning, and Addiction
When you were born, your biology made certain behaviors naturally rewarding. Having sex, drinking water, and eating food all make us feel great because completing these actions releases pleasurable chemicals in the brain.
By creating these pleasant feelings, our brain encourages the behaviors to continue, which gives us the best chance of survival. Eating food and having sex feels good, so you are more likely to do more of it.
Drugs override this system by offering feelings that are much stronger than the natural rewards. Why would you waste your time eating a hamburger when using drugs produces a feeling 100 times more intense?
With time, there is less interest in everything outside of drugs. Drugs become your only joy because they teach your brain that getting high is the most valuable prize in your life.
The Signs of Addiction
The process described above is complex, mostly because you cannot physically see the changes taking place. Rather than seeing the learning take place, you can only notice the differences in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors emerge.
- Take larger amounts of the substance than intended for longer periods of time than intended
- Experience strong desires – called cravings – for the substance when not high
- Struggle to perform and function well at home, worked, and school
- Fall behind on responsibilities and commitments.
- Find themselves in new and worsening conflicts with the important people in their life like friends, family, teachers, and bosses
- Shift their interests away from activities, places, and people they previous enjoyed and towards drug-related activities, places, and people
- Spend time lying, cheating, and stealing to maintain use or to cover their use
- Continue using no matter the risk to their physical or mental health and well-being
Unfortunately, people experiencing levels of addiction find it impossible to see their situations and behaviors accurately. Rather than acknowledging the damaging impact of their substance use, they will blame everything and everyone else for their problems.
If they are arrested for possession of a substance, they will blame the unfair laws or the police officer for singling them out. If a relationship ends, they will blame their ex for changing or their lack of understanding.
They will not see the full impact of addiction until it causes significant pain.
The Road Towards Physical Dependence
Think about addiction as a psychological change that affects the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the individual. Think about dependence as a physical change that affects the physiology of the individual.
Addiction is a lot of things, but addiction is separate from physical dependence. Someone can be addicted and not dependent, dependent and not addicted, or both, addicted and dependent.
Physical dependence takes place in the brain because after the drug is consumed, it enters the bloodstream and eventually lands in the brain. Once it reaches the brain, the drug can change the functioning and structures of certain areas.
Different drugs act differently in the brain. For example, opioid drugs – heroin and prescription pain medications – cling to specialized parts of the brain called opioid receptors where they trigger a massive release of a brain chemical called dopamine.
A dopamine release feels great as it produces the feelings of calm, relaxation, and euphoric pleasure associated with an opioid high. This high feeling is related to many aspects of addiction and dependence.
If you use an opioid once, the brain adjusts to its presence and then readjusts when it is gone. With repeated use, the brain begins to feel overwhelmed by the large amounts of dopamine available and takes steps to counterbalance the levels.
Since the brain values equilibrium, it will:
- Decrease the normal levels of dopamine produced
- Increase the production of other brain chemicals to balance the dopamine
The Formation of Tolerance
These adaptive steps create equilibrium in the system by increasing the person’s tolerance to the substance. Tolerance is a common situation with many substances like alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and opioids.
When tolerance is in place, the individual will need to consume larger amounts of the drug to produce the wanted results. As the drug use increases, the brain continues adapting and increasing tolerance.
The Formation of Dependence
As tolerance increases, dependence is established because the body and the brain need some level of the drug available to feel normal and function well. Without the substance, a wave of discomfort will take hold of the individual.
With high tolerance levels, the brain will make little dopamine on its own, and it will make excessive amounts of the counterbalancing chemicals. Here, the person is dependent on the substance to create stability and equilibrium in the brain.
At this point, missing a dose of the drug will result in plummeting dopamine levels and unchecked waves of the counterbalancing chemicals. Since these brain chemicals offset the calm, relaxation of dopamine, they produce irritability, high energy, and restlessness.