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What is Addiction?

Addiction has a long history of being misunderstood, and today, still, too many people blame the victim for addiction.

In actuality, alcoholism was classified as a disease by the American Medical Association in 1956, and drug addiction followed suit two decades later. In the same way it is wrong to blame someone for having the flu, it is equally wrong to blame someone for being alcoholic or addicted to drugs.

Of course, addiction, in general, is not just limited to mind-altering substances. Gambling, shopping, sexual activity, eating, and many other behaviors have been show to release surges of dopamine in the brain. These forms of dependencies are referred to as "process addictions," and can be just as harmful as substance abuse.

While everybody's addiction experience is different, there are some common threads between different forms of addiction. The symptoms common to all forms of addiction - indeed, the elements that make addiction what it is - are unmistakable:

  • Loss of Control. Addicts are simply unable to control their compulsive behavior. They may decide to quit, only to return to it the next day. They appear powerless to escape the cycle, and continue their behavior on a regular basis, regardless of circumstances.
  • Tolerance. Over time, more of the behavior or substance is necessary to get the same effect. Alcoholics have to drink more to get the same buzz. Gambling addicts have to bet larger and larger amounts. Drug addicts need larger doses to get the same high. This escalation almost always leads to a disastrous end if not stopped.
  • Impairment. Addicts often continue to use a substance or demonstrate a behavior even when they know it has negative effects. Even if an addict knows their substance behavior is bad for them, even if they know it's hurting their families or the people around them, they continue to be compelled to do it anyway.

Most still don't understand why people become addicted to drugs. Too often people mistakenly believe drug abuse is simply a moral failing and a poor choice, and that quitting drugs is as easy as just snapping your fingers and choosing to be done.

In reality, quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs alter the brain in ways that make quitting almost a physiological impossibility, even for those who want to.

What Is Drug Addiction?

The initial decision to take drugs is usually voluntary. Lots of people are curious and choose to "experiment" with drugs, but that initial experiment starts changing brain chemistry immediately. Repeated drug use can chemical changes in the brain that make it difficult to resist intense urges to take drugs. These changes happen particularly fast with methamphetamine and opiates, which frequently hook their users after a single use.

Drug addiction is considered a "relapsing" disease, because those brain changes tend to be persistent. Even after a full recovery from drug use, addicts are at increased risk for becoming addicted even after years of remaining sober. It's common for a person to relapse, but relapse doesn't mean that treatment doesn't work. Like any chronic disease, treatment should be ongoing and adjusted on a case-by-case basis. Evergreen tailors its treatment plan to each and every individual person, to ensure everyone is getting a personalized, evidence-supported treatment plan.

You Keep Talking About "Brain Changes." What Do You Mean?

Most drugs affect the brain's "reward circuit" by flooding it with dopamine. This reward system is responsible for making you feel good for things you do in your regular life. Things like eating great food, engaging in a hobby, and spending a fun time with friends and family may hit that reward circuit. Things like exercising or finishing a difficult, but rewarding project may also give you a good dopamine high.

But if watching a great movie or spending time with loved ones gives you a controlled drip of dopamine, using drugs gives you an overflow. This over stimulation of the reward circuit causes the intensely pleasurable "high" that can lead people to take a drug again and again.

Doesn't sound too bad, right? Indeed, the idea that a simple substance could chemically give you that sort of high is part of why people try it and get addicted in the first place. But it all goes downhill from the first "experiment."

If a person continues their drug use, the brain starts to adapt to this excess dopamine by making less of it and reducing your body's ability to respond to it. Just like with anything else, your body knows when it has too much of something, and immediately starts building resistances to it. You can't get the same high as before - at least not with the same amount.

This generally leads to two things. The first is an increase in the use of the drug, as you become more and more desperate to achieve the same high as before.

The second is a decrease in other activities you used to enjoy. You often become uninterested in social activities, food, and hobbies. These things no longer stimulate your "reward circuits," because the dopamine overload you've gotten from drug use has made you numb to them. This is why a loss of interest in hobbies is one of the most common signs of a serious addiction problem.

Of course, the "reward circuit" isn't the only part of the brain effected by addiction. Long-term drug use also causes changes in your:

  • judgment and decision-making
  • memory and learning
  • behavior

What Makes People More Susceptible to Drug Addiction?

Some people who try drugs become extremely addicted almost immediately. But not everybody who tries drugs becomes addicted so easily. The path is different for everyone.

A combination of factors influences risk for addiction, and there is no definitive risk factor or symptom that confirms it. More than most diseases, addiction must be considered on a case-by-case basis. That said, the more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction. Some people are more susceptible to drug addiction than others. Here are a few that affect that susceptibility, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • Biology. The genes that people are born with account for about half of a person's risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may also influence risk for drug use and addiction.
  • Environment. A person's environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to economic status and general quality of life. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, stress, and parental guidance can greatly affect a person's likelihood of drug use and addiction.
  • Development. Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person's life to affect addiction risk. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to addiction. This is particularly problematic for teens. Because areas in their brains that control decision-making, judgment, and self-control are still developing, teens may be especially prone to risky behaviors, including trying drugs.

How are Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treated and Cured?

Unfortunately, it's a little optimistic to call the fix for addiction a "cure." Addiction is a chronic condition that, once experienced for the first time, can come back even after years of sobriety. Those changes to the brain chemistry are often permanent, and because of that, it's never really "cured."

However, addiction is treatable, and that's where Evergreen comes in. We understand and sympathize with the difficulty faced by those suffering from addiction, and our treatment reflects that compassion. We know that addiction is a mental health issue, and that it is also accompanied by other co-occurring mental health issues. We aim to treat both.

The NIDA states that "combining addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy ensures the best chance of success for most patients. Treatment approaches tailored to each patient's drug use patterns and any co-occurring medical, mental, and social problems can lead to continued recovery."

This describes Evergreen's treatment philosophy to a T. You can check out Evergreen's breakdown of how we treat addiction here, or see a rundown of what we treat at Evergreen here. You can also get more information on addiction in Washington State here.