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November 27, 2019

What Is Drug Addiction? Understanding Drug Abuse

Drug addiction is an epidemic and has been for a long time. Chances are if you have not battled an addiction with some type of drug in your life, you know someone who has. Despite how common it can be, we frequently speak with friends and family of addicts who ask us “what is drug addiction?”

Some might tell you that being an addict is the result of a moral failing, and if they really wanted to they could just stop using drugs. Unfortunately, that is not the reality of substance abuse. Drug addiction is more like a chronic disease, where avoiding it entirely or quitting it after you’ve become addicted is a war within yourself.

Fortunately, scientific research into addiction has revealed more than ever about what it is and how it happens. If you want to learn more about what drug addiction is, you can get the facts here. We cover the chemistry in your brain that happens when you take drugs,

Table of Contents

  • What is drug addiction?
  • What is the difference between drug addiction, dependence, and misuse?
  • How does drug addiction happen?

What Is Drug Addiction?

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, drug addiction is now considered to be similar to chronic disease. People who become addicts are often caught in a compulsive cycle that will ultimately send them seeking their fix, despite knowing how harmful it can be. It can also catch people who do not know how addictive drugs can be, but after repeated drug use the brain is changed to remove their ability of self-control.

This is why it is now treated as a chronic illness, because it has a similar cycle of symptoms flaring up, suffering through the effects, and fighting mentally to get through it. It is also why many addicts will often relapse at least once after going through rehab. Further, it is why treatments for addiction are considered more of a constant and ongoing effort.

What Is the Difference Between Drug Addiction, Dependence, and Misuse?

Part of the reason why many people don’t fully understand drug addiction is that they confuse it with drug misuse and dependence. Here is a quick breakdown of each to illustrate the differences.

What Is drug misuse?

Drug misuse happens when someone intentionally consumes a drug incorrectly or inappropriately. That can mean taking more of a drug dose than you are supposed to, taking a drug when you don’t need it or using it for different purposes, and so on.

However, people will sometimes misuse a drug without becoming addicted to it. There is no chronic compulsion or craving to take more of it constantly.

As an example, someone who goes to a party and smokes so much marijuana they begin hallucinating or blacking out will have misused the drug. They did it purely for fun and experienced the short-term negative effects of it, but they have not become addicted. The side effects the next day may also make them wary of using it at all in the future.

An addict, meanwhile, will consume a drug knowing the effects it has on them because they feel an overwhelming compulsion that they need to.

What is drug dependence?

Drug dependence can look quite similar to addiction but has a different origin. When someone is addicted to a drug, they keep taking it because they are unable to resist it despite knowing the consequences.

People sometimes use the terms “addiction” and “dependence” interchangeably. Dependence is not the same as addiction. They will often sacrifice friends, family, jobs, and their own well being to get more of it.

Drug dependence happens when your body is physically dependent on a drug. It is similar to addiction in that you need to take it, and you take so much you get a larger tolerance for it and have to take more. However, there is no desperate urge to take the drug — you take it for a condition such as diabetes, chronic pain, and so on.

You may also have physical withdrawal when you stop taking it like with addiction. It is usually easier to slowly transition off of it without that compulsion.

How Does Drug Addiction Develop?

There are many reasons, or risk factors, that can lead someone to become addicted to drugs. You can read more about that in our guide here.

Here we will look at the biological process of how the addiction develops from the very beginning. It all comes back to the brain and how it regulates your emotions, behaviors, and urges. When you do something you like and have a big accomplishment, your brain releases a chemical that makes you feel joy, thrills, excitement, pleasure, and so on.

In its normal state, feeling those sensations is what makes you want to accomplish more and participate in the activities that make you feel good in that way. However, that urge is normally not so strong that it prevents you from living a normal life. To understand how drug addiction develops, we need to look at what happens to your brain.

The Brain Chemistry Behind Addiction

When it comes to dependence, most drugs that people abuse are all highly addictive. The commonality with them all is that when you take the drug it floods your brain with a massive amount of those same chemicals that make you feel extreme joy and pleasure—more than any natural occurrence mentioned above.

The first time you take the drug, you might not take that much of it and you might not even become addicted right away. That leads you to take it again so you can feel that same euphoria again, and again, and so on.

Eventually, you gain a higher tolerance so you have to take more of it just to feel the same level of pleasure. Now all the negative effects are adding up, but you can’t stop taking it — now you’re addicted, and it is a desperate compulsion that you just can’t stop.

Your brain by that point is permanently altered. In addition to having that high tolerance and desperate craving, you might find that your brain can’t experience those same sensations normally anymore. Hobbies and achievements that once brought you joy now just doesn’t as much, or not at all.

So to feel any sort of pleasure any more, you turn back to the drug just so you don’t feel anything but negative feelings and emotions. That cycle of pleasure, craving, and dependency is what traps so many people.

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