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How Does Addiction Happen?

Addiction involves both physical and psychological dependence on a drug. When the body adapts to the constant presence of a substance, it becomes physically dependent.

Navigation: Why Do People Abuse Drugs?, How Does Addiction Develop?, Drugs and the Brain’s Reward System, The Risk Factors for Drug Addiction, The Dangers of Drug Abuse and Addiction, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


Drug addiction is a chronic and complex condition characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and drug use, despite the harmful consequences. Also known as substance use disorder, it is considered a brain disorder because certain substances can change the brain’s structure, leading to a strong craving for the drug and difficulty controlling its use.

Addiction involves both physical and psychological dependence on a drug. When the body adapts to the constant presence of a substance, it becomes physically dependent. Physical dependence leads to withdrawal symptoms whenever a person reduces their intake or quits the drug entirely.

On the other hand, psychological dependence involves intense cravings and a strong desire to use the drug to experience its pleasurable effects.

With all the dangerous effects associated with addiction, it is important to take a closer look at how this medical condition develops.

Various factors contribute to the development of drug addiction, including genetic predisposition, environmental influences, and individual vulnerabilities. Let’s take a closer look at substance use disorders and their development.


Why Do People Abuse Drugs?

Of course most people know that when addiction develops, it’s due to drug misuse. But how do addictive drugs cause such effects? Before we get into the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain’s reward system, let’s take a brief look at why people abuse drugs in the first place.

People abuse drugs for various reasons, and it’s important to note that drug abuse is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors. Everyone’s reason for abusing drugs is different.

Some individuals turn to drugs as a way to escape from stress, emotional pain, or other challenging life circumstances. Drugs may provide temporary relief or numbness, allowing individuals to avoid or forget their problems temporarily.

Others may try drugs even if they don’t necessarily want to, all because of peer pressure and social influence. People may experiment with drugs due to their desire to fit in with a particular group. In some cases, they may continue to take drugs to maintain social connections or to avoid feeling left out. Teens and young adults are especially vulnerable to peer pressure.

That said, some people do experiment with drugs and alcohol just out of sheer curiosity or rebellion. The desire to explore altered states of consciousness or curiosity about the effects of drugs can lead some people to try substances.

Many people take drugs recreationally as a way to relax and enjoy themselves. Growing up in an environment where drug abuse is prevalent, such as a household with substance-abusing family members, can increase the likelihood of an individual engaging in drug abuse. Additionally, exposure to high-stress environments or communities with easy access to drugs can contribute to substance abuse.

Individuals with mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, or trauma may misuse drugs as a way to self-medicate and alleviate their symptoms. Unfortunately, drug abuse can worsen mental health problems in the long run.

Limited knowledge about the risks and consequences of drug abuse can play a role in its initiation. Lack of understanding about addiction as a chronic brain disease may prevent individuals from recognizing the potential harm and seeking help.

Regardless of the reason, misusing drugs can eventually lead to drug abuse and addiction.


How Does Addiction Develop?

Addiction is a complex and multifaceted condition that can develop over time due to various factors. While the development of addiction can vary from person to person, there are common patterns and underlying mechanisms involved.

Many addictions begin with initial exposure to a particular substance. Individuals may try drugs or alcohol out of curiosity, peer pressure, or as a coping mechanism.

As experimentation progresses, some individuals may find themselves using substances more frequently. This can be driven by the desire to recreate the pleasurable experiences they initially had or to cope with negative emotions and stress.

Repeated use of addictive substances can lead to tolerance, which means the person will have to take more of the drug just to get the same effect. This can lead to a cycle of escalating substance use.

Over time, the individual may develop psychological dependence, where they feel a strong desire or craving to engage in the addictive substance just to feel “normal”. This dependence can be driven by the reinforcement of pleasurable experiences or the avoidance of negative withdrawal symptoms.

With certain substances, continued use can lead to physical dependence. The body adapts to the presence of the substance and requires it to function normally. If the substance is suddenly stopped or significantly reduced, withdrawal symptoms can occur, which further reinforces the cycle of addiction.

Eventually, addiction affects every other aspect of the person’s life, including their health, their relationships, their career, etc. Despite these negative consequences, they will still struggle to control their substance use.

Keep in mind that addiction is influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and individual factors. Some people may be more predisposed to addiction due to genetic vulnerabilities, while environmental factors such as family history, peer influence, trauma, or high levels of stress can also play a role.

Understanding the development of addiction helps highlight the importance of prevention, early intervention, and comprehensive treatment approaches for individuals struggling with addiction.

Drugs and the Brain’s Reward System

This entire process is supported by the fact that addictive drugs affect the brain’s reward center. The reward system of the brain plays a crucial role in the experience of pleasure, motivation, and reinforcement. Drugs can alter its functioning and reinforce the idea that taking these substances is a positive experience that needs to be repeated.

For example, many drugs increase the release or inhibit the reuptake of dopamine, a neurotransmitter strongly associated with reward and pleasure. This flood of dopamine can create intense feelings of euphoria and reinforce drug use. Over time, repeated drug use can lead to desensitization of dopamine receptors, reducing the natural pleasure response and potentially leading to addiction.

Different drugs may have unique effects on the brain’s reward system. Additionally, individual variations, genetics, and the pattern of drug use can influence the specific impact on the brain and behavior.

Repeated drug use can lead to long-term changes in the reward system, affecting decision-making, impulse control, and the ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards. These changes can contribute to the cycle of addiction, where the brain becomes increasingly dependent on the drug to function normally.

The Risk Factors for Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a complex condition influenced by various factors. Having risk factors does not guarantee that you will eventually become addicted to drugs. But generally speaking, the more risk factors you do have, the higher the likelihood of developing an addiction, so you need to be more careful.

While individual susceptibility may vary, the following are some common risk factors associated with drug addiction:

Genetic Factors: A person’s genetic makeup can play a significant role in their vulnerability to drug addiction. Certain genes can affect how an individual responds to drugs, including their sensitivity to the effects and their ability to regulate their behavior and emotions.

Family History: Growing up in an environment where drug abuse is prevalent can increase the risk of developing an addiction. Family history of addiction can indicate a genetic predisposition and can also contribute to learned behaviors and attitudes towards drug use.

Personal Circumstances: Factors such as a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, or traumatic experiences can increase the likelihood of turning to drugs as a coping mechanism. High levels of stress, low self-esteem, and feelings of social isolation can also contribute to drug addiction.

Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders: Individuals with mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a higher risk of developing a drug addiction. Substance abuse is often used as a way to self-medicate or alleviate symptoms of these disorders.

Peer Pressure: The influence of peers, particularly during adolescence, can greatly impact drug use. If a person’s social circle includes individuals who engage in drug abuse, they are more likely to experiment with and develop an addiction to drugs.

Early Drug Use: Initiating drug use at an early age increases the risk of addiction. The developing brain of adolescents is particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs, which can lead to long-lasting changes in brain structure and function.

Availability and Exposure: Easy access to drugs, either within the community or at home, can significantly contribute to the risk of addiction. Exposure to drug use through family, friends, or the media can also influence an individual’s perception and acceptance of drug use.

Lack of Education: Insufficient knowledge and awareness about the risks associated with drug use can contribute to experimentation and subsequent addiction. Lack of understanding about the consequences and potential harm of drug abuse may lead individuals to engage in risky behaviors.

At the same time, there are certain “protective factors” that lower a person’s risk of developing an addiction.

Protective factors are characteristics or conditions that can reduce the likelihood of drug addiction. While they do not guarantee that an individual will not develop an addiction, they act as a buffer and enhance resilience.

Here are some common protective factors against drug addiction: strong family bonds, positive parental involvement, healthy peer relationships, good problem-solving skills, good social skills, access to education and employment opportunities, good mental health, healthy coping mechanisms, and community support.

Just like risk factors, protective factors are not guaranteed to save you from addiction, but they do lower your risk. Cultivating these protective factors can significantly reduce the likelihood of drug addiction.

The Dangers of Drug Abuse and Addiction

It goes without saying that drug addiction is an incredibly dangerous medical condition that is better off avoided entirely.

Drug addiction can have severe consequences on a person’s physical and mental health, relationships, work or school performance, and overall quality of life. It can lead to medical complications, financial problems, legal issues, and social isolation.

Drug addiction can have severe physical and mental health consequences. Substance abuse can lead to organ damage, cardiovascular problems, respiratory issues, neurological disorders, and increased risk of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Long-term drug use can also cause mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, psychosis, and cognitive impairments. This is why treatment often involves support from a mental health professional and addiction experts.

However, the most immediate and life-threatening dangers of drug addiction is the risk of overdose. When individuals consume excessive amounts of drugs, their body’s vital functions can be severely suppressed, leading to respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, or other fatal complications.

Drug abuse and addiction has effects beyond the individual level. It not only affects the addicted person but also the people around them. It even affects their community and society as a whole.

Drug addiction often leads to legal troubles. Possession, sale, or distribution of illicit drugs is illegal in most jurisdictions, and individuals addicted to drugs may engage in criminal activities to obtain money for their addiction. This can result in arrests, convictions, and imprisonment.

Substance abuse impairs judgment, decision-making abilities, and impulse control. This can lead to engaging in risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, driving under the influence, and involvement in violence or criminal activities, putting both the individual and others at risk.

Addiction can strain relationships with family, friends, and partners. Individuals may become distant, unreliable, and emotionally unavailable, leading to broken relationships and social isolation. Social connections and support systems are crucial for overall well-being, and the loss of these relationships can further exacerbate the negative effects of addiction.

Overcoming addiction often requires comprehensive treatment, including detoxification, counseling, behavioral therapies, support groups, and, in some cases, medication-assisted treatment.

It’s important to note that addiction is a treatable condition, and with the right support and resources, individuals can recover and lead fulfilling lives in long-term recovery. Early intervention, prevention programs, and ongoing support are crucial in addressing the challenges of drug addiction and reducing its impact on individuals and society.

Drug addiction often perpetuates a cycle of dependency. As individuals develop a tolerance to drugs, they require higher doses to achieve the desired effects, leading to increased drug use and addiction. Breaking this cycle can be challenging and may require professional intervention and support.

Addressing drug addiction requires comprehensive approaches that involve prevention, education, early intervention, access to treatment, and ongoing support. It is essential to prioritize efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of drug addiction and promote healthy lifestyles to minimize its impact on individuals and society.

Understanding drug addiction is an essential part of addiction medicine. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorders, look for a rehab near you and learn more about the various treatment programs available.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.


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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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