Commonly Asked Questions about Addiction and Treatment
How do addictive drugs influence behavior?
Addictive drugs influence behavior by interacting with the brain's reward system. This system is responsible for driving pleasurable feelings and motivating behaviors essential to human survival, such as eating and socializing. Addictive substances can hijack this system, leading to changes in behavior and brain function.
Here's a simplified explanation of how this works:
Alteration of Neurotransmitter Activity: Addictive substances often increase the levels of certain neurotransmitters, chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain. One key neurotransmitter affected by many drugs is dopamine, which is closely associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.
Overstimulation of the Reward System: By increasing dopamine levels, addictive drugs overstimulate the reward system, often creating a sense of euphoria. This intense pleasure can lead individuals to repeat the drug use to recapture this feeling.
Development of Tolerance and Dependence: Over time, the brain adapts to the increased dopamine levels by producing less dopamine or reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. As a result, the drug's effects are lessened, a phenomenon known as tolerance. This can lead users to take increasingly larger doses of the drug to achieve the same dopamine high. This cycle can lead to dependence, where the brain relies on the drug to function normally.
Withdrawal and Cravings: When the drug is not taken, withdrawal symptoms can occur as the brain attempts to rebalance itself. These can include negative emotions like anxiety and depression, physical symptoms like nausea or restlessness, and intense cravings for the drug.
Compulsive Drug-seeking Behavior: As the cycle of tolerance, dependence, withdrawal, and cravings continues, individuals may engage in compulsive drug-seeking behavior, even when faced with negative health, social, or legal consequences. This is a key characteristic of addiction.
Impairment in Decision-making and Self-control: Long-term drug use can also cause changes to other areas of the brain that impair decision-making, self-control, judgment, learning, and memory, further fueling the cycle of addiction.
How does a person become addicted to drugs?
Addiction to drugs is a complex process that involves a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. It is not simply a matter of weak willpower or moral failing, but rather a chronic disease of the brain that can develop over time.
Here's a simplified explanation of how a person may become addicted to drugs:
- Initial Use: The path to addiction often begins with the voluntary act of taking drugs. This could be due to curiosity, peer pressure, seeking pleasure or relief from stress, or even for medical reasons under prescription.
- Pleasure and Reward: Drugs alter the brain's normal functioning, typically leading to intense feelings of pleasure or the elimination of uncomfortable feelings. They do this by overstimulating the brain's reward system - particularly by releasing large amounts of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which plays a significant role in feelings of pleasure and reward.
- Repeated Use and Tolerance: Over time, as a person continues to use the drug, the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine by producing less of it or reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This reduces the high, leading the person to take more of the drug in an attempt to recreate the original experience. This is known as developing a tolerance.
- Dependence: As the brain becomes used to the drug, physiological changes occur that make the person's body require the drug to function "normally." When the drug is not taken, withdrawal symptoms may be experienced, driving the person to continue using the drug to avoid these uncomfortable or even painful symptoms.
- Addiction: At this point, seeking and consuming the drug becomes a compulsion. The person may want to stop using the drug, but they find it extremely difficult or impossible to do so on their own, even in the face of negative consequences to their health, relationships, or other aspects of their life. The brain's cognitive functions related to judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control are significantly altered, leading to harmful behaviors and the cycle of addiction.
What are signs that my loved one is a drug abuser?
Identifying a loved one's drug abuse can be challenging as symptoms can vary depending on the substance being used, the duration of use, and the individual's personal circumstances. However, there are several signs that could potentially indicate drug abuse. These signs can be physical, behavioral, and psychological.
- Noticeable changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- Bloodshot eyes, pupils that are larger or smaller than usual
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
- Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
- Neglect of physical appearance and personal hygiene
- Unexplained need for money, or frequent financial problems
- Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors
- Sudden change in friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies
- Frequently getting into trouble (fights, accidents, illegal activities)
- Neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home
- Unexplained absences or a drop in performance in work or school
- Unexplained change in personality or attitude
- Sudden mood swings, irritability, or angry outbursts
- Periods of unusual hyperactivity or agitation
- Lack of motivation, appears lethargic or "spaced out"
- Appears fearful, anxious, or paranoid without reason