Understanding drug use and addiction is essential to understanding recovery. Many people don’t understand why or how others become addicted. They may mistakenly think addicts and alcoholics lack moral principles. Or, that recovery from addiction was simply a matter of willpower. In reality, chemical dependency is a complex disease. Quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to. Fortunately, researchers know more than ever about how drugs affect the brain and have found treatments that can help people recover from drug addiction.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. The initial decision to use drugs or alcohol is voluntary. But repeated use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease. People in recovery from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of not taking the drug.

It’s common for a person to relapse, but relapse doesn’t mean that treatment doesn’t work. As with other chronic health conditions, treatment should be ongoing and should be adjusted based on how the patient responds. Treatment plans need to be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s changing needs.

What happens to the brain when a person takes drugs?

Most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit,” causing euphoria as well as flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. A properly functioning reward system motivates a person to repeat behaviors needed to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. Surges of dopamine in the reward circuit cause the reinforcement of pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors like taking drugs, leading people to repeat the behavior again and again.

As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adapts by reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high they felt when first taking the drug—an effect known as tolerance. They might take more of the drug to try and achieve the same high. These brain adaptations often lead to the person becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, like food, sex, or social activities.

Research looking to understand drug use and addiction shows the long-term use also causes:

Despite being aware of these harmful outcomes, many people who use drugs continue to take them, which is the nature of addiction.

Male alcoholic with drinks in front of him

Can addiction be cured or prevented?

As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction isn’t a cure. However, addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed. People who are recovering from an addiction are at risk for relapse. Research shows that combining addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy ensures the best chance of success. Treatment approaches tailored to each patient’s drug use patterns and any co-occurring medical, mental, and social problems can lead to continued recovery.

By understanding drug use and addiction we’ve been able to learn that chemical dependency is preventable. Results from NIDA-funded research have shown that prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective for preventing or reducing drug use and addiction. Personal events and cultural factors affect drug use trends. However, when young people view drug use as harmful, they tend to decrease their drug taking. Therefore, education and outreach are key. Teachers, parents, and health care providers have crucial roles in educating young people and preventing drug use and addiction.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, contact me today. Help is available and people do recover.

  • Jason Lynch, MS, LMHCA, LCACA, ADS, CCTP

  • Phone
  • Address
    The Counseling Center, LLC
    23 S. 8th Street
    Suite 1150
    Noblesville, IN 46060

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