Drug use and addiction may be synonymous, but there are a couple steps between using a drug and getting addicted to it. Even heroin, one of the most addictive drugs in the world, can’t get someone hooked from a single high. The journey to becoming addicted is one determined by a number of different factors, including the addictiveness of the drug, the person’s mental health at the height of their drug use, and many external and internal factors that may drive someone to use drugs more liberally than most.
Drug addiction is quite complicated and has little to do with a person’s moral convictions or strength of character. Largely characterized as a brain disease, addiction’s causes are ultimately neurological in origin. We’re going to go over how a person might get addicted to drugs.
It’s in the Family
Addiction does run in the family. Scientists have identified genes (small biological differences) that are specifically related to addiction, and statistics show that if you have a close relative who struggles with addiction, it’s likely that you have a higher risk of developing an addiction to the same drug than others with no family history of addiction. This can often be seen in alcoholism/alcohol use disorder. It’s important to note that a predisposition towards drug abuse does not make an addition a guarantee, it only means that there is a considerable degree of inheritability.
Note that while studies do their best to correct for such issues, it’s important to note that it is very difficult to separate genetic predisposition from the effects of a similar family background, in terms of violence and abuse at home, issues with poverty, ethnic discrimination, and so on.
How Drugs Cause Addiction
Drug use itself obviously plays a massive role in the development of addiction. Addictive drugs are addictive for different reasons and have different effects and mechanisms in the brain, but the general gist of addictiveness starts with how certain chemicals make their way into the brain through the bloodstream, and bind with our brain cells, often mimicking normal brain chemicals in size and shape, and thus attaching to our cells’ receptors.
Once integrated with portions of the brain, addictive drugs tend to stimulate the brain into releasing abnormal amounts of dopamine or increase the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine. The effects of such a gross overload of brain chemicals leads to a number of physical and psychological effects.
The first effect is the high. Not all illegal drugs or high-inducing drugs are addictive, as with drugs such as LSD. These drugs are potentially dangerous for different reasons. However, stimulants, depressants, opioids and a slew of synthetic designer drugs all induce a different kind of high, coupled with the manipulated release of dopamine, and an effect on the reward pathways of the brain.
One high isn’t enough to make serious physiological changes, but heavy drug use can change the brain in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, including symptoms of withdrawal after stopping, tolerance issues resulting in the need for stronger doses to remain high, and other adaptations that begin to suggest a physical dependence on the drug. Psychological effects can include anything from heightened anxiety and depressive symptoms to irritability, paranoia, and psychosis.
Stress and Drug Use
Stress is indubitably linked to drug use, and drug abuse. One of the reasons people may turn towards drugs to begin with is as a way to cope with pressure, release stress, and seek relief. Traumas, sudden loss, struggles with work or school, as well as long-term ongoing psychological anguish and serious emotional stress can cause addiction as a way to cope with recurring feelings of anger, sadness, and more.
The reason drugs are such an attractive way to deal with stress is because they don’t require confiding in another person about your problems, they don’t require you to confront your issues, and they work very quickly and very effectively – for a very short period of time. Drugs are maladaptive coping mechanisms, meaning they don’t provide a long-term solution to the pain, and often make it worse by enabling denial and lack of treatment or care.
Drug Use in Teens
Teens are uniquely positioned to struggle with developing and lasting addiction due to their age. Teens are more prone to developing mood disorders and experiencing feelings of distress and depression, and are prone to the perfect storm of:
- Heightened sense of curiosity
- Lack of risk assessment or inhibition
- Groupthink and peer pressure
Teens are more likely to start using drugs than any other age group and are more likely to develop lifelong addiction the younger they start.
However, the good news is that teens seem less likely to engage in drug use today than in almost any other period of recent history. This generation has fewer drug-related vices than its predecessors. But a significant portion of US teens still struggle with the effects of drug use, either directly or indirectly.
Prescription Medication and Addiction
A significant portion of overdose deaths in the past few years have been due to prescription drugs, primarily prescription opioids used to stave off chronic pain and postoperative pain. While inefficient and sometimes even ineffective, today’s healthcare system in America incentivizes the prescription and use of pills over long-term pain management strategies such as physical rehab, professional massages, cryotherapy, heat treatment, and so on.
This was a problem especially in the 90s, when erroneous health guidelines pushed for the prescription of pain medication, especially the drug OxyContin, leading in tens of thousands of overdose deaths, and countless new addicts hooked to opioids first, and heroin after.
Since then, the effects of excessive prescription have been felt in the form of the growing opioid crisis, which continues to claim lives, fueled by a growing heroin market, larger supplies of illegal drugs, and the aftermath of the global recession and its severe and detrimental effects on the economy.
The factors that cause addiction are multifold and exist in many different shapes and forms. Every case is different and requires a different level of care and different forms of treatment.