Addiction may be defined as a pattern of compulsive drug use characterized by a continued craving for drugs and the need to use these drugs for psychological effects or mood alterations. Many abusers find that they need to use drugs to feel “normal.” The user exhibits drug seeking behavior and is often preoccupied with using and obtaining the drugs of choice. These substances may be obtained through legal or illegal channels.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine considers addiction “a disease process characterized by the continued use of a specific psychoactive substance despite physical, psychological or social harm.”
How Addiction Affects the Brain
What happens physically—in the brain and body—when one is addicted? Drugs have three basic effects on the body:
•stimulation or a feeling of being “high” or energized
•depression or a feeling of being calm or even sleepy
•distortion of the senses
When any chemical enters the brain, it is absorbed into the brain through receptor sites. When the body is getting a drug from an outside source, the brain stops making some of its own chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins, that is makes naturally. The brain then becomes dependent on the outside source of drugs. At the same time, as the brain adapts to the drug’s presence, the individual using the drugs must take more and more of most addicting drugs to try to reach the same feelings that they got when they first started using the drugs. (However, they almost never can get that initial feeling again.)
What is Withdrawal?
If these drugs are stopped abruptly, the dependent person usually goes into “withdrawal” because the body is no longer receiving the outside source of the “chemical” it has grown to expect.
Withdrawal symptoms, in the case of a stimulant such an amphetamine, will often include being groggy or even sleeping for long periods. On the other hand, someone stopping use of narcotics or alcohol is no longer getting the calming effects of the chemicals; accordingly, he or she may be irritable, unable to sleep, and may even develop seizures. The human brain tries to avoid these feelings by telling the body that it really needs the missing substance. These overwhelming needs are known as cravings, and giving up the drug is very difficult.
I Can’t Give Up this Drug…
This inability to stop using the drug is a characteristic of addiction. Although most people would stop using a drug if they knew it had destructive consequences, an addicted person cannot. After prolonged use of an addictive substance, the brain virtually becomes “re-wired.” Accordingly, addicts are not simply weak-willed; they have differences in the way their brain reacts to drugs than do most people. Once started, they often cannot stop without help.
Common Symptoms of Addiction
•Relief from anxiety
•Changes in mood—from a sense of well being to belligerence
•False feelings of self-confidence
•Increased sensitivity to sights and sounds, including hallucinations
•Altered activity levels—such as sleeping for 12-14 hours or frenzied activity lasting for hours
•Unpleasant or painful symptoms when substance is withdrawn