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The Science Of Substance Abuse & Addiction

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse affects millions of lives a year and can be extremely difficult to overcome. What makes a substance addictive? And how does treatment work against the science of addiction?

At Fifth Street Counseling Center, we know that understanding is the first step to overcoming, so we’re here to unpack and get to the core of what it means to be addicted.

Drug Addiction

In 2016, over 63,000 deaths were caused by drug overdose in America, and that number is increasing year by year. Substance use is one of the main reasons to consider counseling because it so quickly spirals out of control.

What Is Drug Addiction?

Drug use can refer to the use of alcohol, nicotine, tobacco, or illicit drugs. Drug addiction is a chronic disorder characterized by:

  • Compulsive seeking of drugs
  • Continued drug use, even if negative consequences are experienced
  • Long-term, physical changes in the brain

Addiction cannot be thought of as just a mental illness, or just a complex brain disorder – but a complicated combination of the two. It is a medical illness attributed to continued use of a substance and sits on the most severe end of the spectrum of substance disorders.

How Do Drugs Affect The Brain?

Substance use or misuse works by directly or indirectly targeting the reward center in the brain by overloading it with dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for:

  • Emotions
  • Cognition
  • Motivation
  • Movement regulation
  • Activation of reward center in the brain

At normal levels, dopamine rewards and reinforces natural behaviors and actions. When the brain has levels of dopamine that are too high – the system reinforces the action of drug use and tells you to repeat the behavior.

Is Drug Use A Voluntary Behavior?

Drug use or misuse is voluntary the first time the decision is made. With continued use, a person loses the ability to use their self-control and say no.

Scientists have studied the brain images throughout drug addiction, and it has been found that addiction physically changes the areas of the brain responsible for:

  • Judgment
  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Decision-making
  • Behavior and impulse control

This helps explain the sometimes volatile and destructive actions of someone who is addicted – these actions are one of the main signs of substance abuse.

Dependence, Tolerance, Or Addiction?

Dependence can happen with any substance, legal or illegal, that is consumed regularly. Physical dependence occurs due to the body adapting to regular exposure to a substance – even if it is being taking in prescribed amounts. It is characterized by the appearance of symptoms when the substance is taken away and leads to strong cravings in order to relieve this withdrawal.

Tolerance occurs when the body requires higher doses of a substance for it to have its original affect. Your body can build tolerance to any substance, not just drugs – like the caffeine found in coffee.

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder; where use is continued despite harmful consequences.

Treating Addiction

Addiction can be treated successfully. It is a fully treatable, chronic disorder, which can be managed in the same way one would manage asthma.

It has been found that for most people the best way to ensure treatment success is a combination of behavioral therapy and medication, known as medication-assisted treatment.

Treatment Plans

Treatment for a substance use disorder must be tailored for every individual, depending on their medical history, drug history, circumstances, social problems, and lifestyle. It is important to know what to expect when beginning treatment, so you have the highest chance of success.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatment plan; and there is often a measure of trial and error when finding the perfect plan for a patient.

Relapse Or Treatment Failure?

Relapse is the return to drug use after periods of abstinence or treatment and is often followed by extreme feelings of shame or guilt. Maybe people recovering from drug addiction become discouraged when they relapse, but it is a normal part of recovery and should not be as feared as it sometimes is.

Due to the fact that addiction is chronic in nature, relapse is highly likely – but this does not mean that treatment has failed. Relapse rates for drug use are comparable to those for other chronic medical illnesses, like asthma or hypertension, which also have physiological and behavioral components.

Treating chronic diseases is done by changing imbedded behaviors, so a relapse just shows that the treatment plan needs adjusting. As mentioned earlier, treatment will differ for every individual depending on history and circumstances, and your treatment plan may need some shifting before it works for you.

Getting The Help You Need

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, Fifth Street Counseling Center can help you build the treatment plan that will stick. Contact us today at (954) 797-5222 to set up an appointment and take away addiction’s power over you.

We accept Medicaid and all major insurance and we offer affordable self-pay rates.