Understanding alcohol and drug addiction

Woman struggling with drug and alcohol abuse

There’s a stigma in the United States that people with alcohol and drug addiction lack will power; that they can stop such addiction at any time if they simply wanted to. This inaccurate belief not only damages the reputations of people struggling with substance abuse, but it can also lead to false ideas about the consequences of alcoholism and drug use.

Before you dismiss that friend or family member who always seems to be “having a drink,” it’s important to take a look at alcoholism and drug addiction as a chronic brain disease.

Over the long-term, it is not a choice. It is a chemical change in the body that not only affects judgment and behavior, but also lowers an individual’s ability to resist the urges of addiction.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) explains genetics, environmental influences, and a person’s individual development all factor into whether or not someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Before you judge someone too harshly, consider what factors have come together to lead them down their particular path.

Doesn’t alcoholism and drug addiction start with a choice?

Part of the stigma that follows individuals living with an addiction to drugs and alcohol has to do with that first decision to indulge in an addictive substance. “Well, you should have never tried it in the first place,” is a common sentiment among friends, family, and acquaintances.

If you never try an addictive substance, you may not become an addict, but on the same note, not everyone who tries drugs or alcohol becomes addicted.

There is no single predictor of who will develop an addiction, but several factors are thought to play a role:

  • Genetics:  The National Institute on Drug Abuse states genetics accounts for 50% of a person’s risk to develop an addiction. This includes factors related to gender, ethnicity, mental health and family history.
  • Environment: Pressure to do drugs or alcohol, as well as attitudes on substance abuse, all influence an individual’s likelihood to become an addict.
  • Age: Addiction can occur at any age, but the younger a person starts habitually using drugs or alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted.

Most drugs heavily influence the brain’s positive, feel-good reward system. Though each drug is different in its mechanisms, the majority of these substances flood the body with the chemical dopamine, stimulating the body’s ability to feel pleasure and feeding its desire to participate in pleasurable activities.

Simply put, people take drugs and alcohol because they make them feel good.

This desire to feel good can lead people to habitual drug and alcohol use, and the more people abuse substances, the less the body responds to them.  Eventually, more and more of the substance is needed to feel its effects, and the cycle of addiction takes firm hold.

Warnings signs of alcoholism and drug addiction

Each substance with the potential for abuse has its own list of specific warning signs, but according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, someone with an addiction, in general, may exhibit behaviors such as:

  • Neglecting other once-favorite activities in favor of drugs or drinking
  • Frequent loss of control while using and addictive substance
  • Increased risk taking
  • Deteriorating relationships
  • Secrecy
  • Lack of personal hygiene/lack of caring about appearance
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent sickness
  • Mood swings

If you suspect that you, or someone you know, has drug or alcohol addiction, the good news is that it is treatable and manageable.  

Once a person has become addicted, there is always the chance he or she will relapse back into substance abuse, and for this reason, there is thought to be no cure for addiction.

Does environment and culture influence addiction? Where can you find help?
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