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Why Do People Use Drugs? The Science Behind Addiction

If you’ve never experienced a problem with substance abuse it can be difficult to understand how people become addicted to drugs. It’s a common misconception that those who use drugs lack moral principles or resolve to quit and that they can stop their drug use by simply choosing to do so. Drug addiction is a complex disease that goes deeper than moral principles and willpower. Drug use changes the brain in ways that make quitting immensely difficult, even for those who want to get sober. Getting clean from drugs requires more than good intentions or a strong will. The good news is that research is being done on the areas of the brain altered by drug use and dependence, which is helping scientists know more about how drugs affect the brain and what treatments can help people recover from drug addiction best.

It’s clear that drugs alter how people feel in their normal lives, but what motivates them to use drugs? People use drugs for a variety of reasons, whether that is wanting to feel better, or perform better academically, athletically, or professionally. Some may even use drugs just to fit into a certain crowd they want to be included in – this is most common among the teenage population. Despite understanding the reasons why individuals are drawn to drug use, society still grapples with understanding why people still use drugs if they know it is bad for them and detrimental to their overall life. The solution for this is to acknowledge the science of drug use.

How Drug Use Becomes Addiction

Initially, people choose to use drugs, unless they are drugged against their will. As time goes on, they lose self-control, become addicted, and are not able to follow through with their desire to say “no”… Abstaining becomes difficult and it begins to feel painful and impossible to do; this is the biggest sign of addiction. According to DrugAbuse.gov:

Brain studies of people with addiction have shown physical changes in parts of the brain that are essential for judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and impulse control. Scientists have found that when this happens to the brain, it alters how the brain works, which explains the harmful behaviors of addiction that are difficult to control.

Drug Use and The Brain

Drugs trigger the parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure. Most drugs influence the brain’s “reward circuit”, leading to euphoria as a result of an influx of the chemical messenger dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure. A properly functioning reward system allows human beings to repeat behaviors needed to survive and live well. Using drugs and having dopamine flood into the reward circuit causes the reinforcement of pleasurable behaviors, increasing the desire to use drugs repeatedly.

Tolerance and Dependence

After using drugs for lengthy periods, the pleasure centers of the brain get accustomed and reliant on the drug being present in the body. When an individual consistently uses drugs, the brain responds by lessening the ability of cells in the reward circuit to function accordingly. As a result, individuals will then experience less of a high than they did from initial use. Soon enough, a tolerance develops and users need to take more of the drug to experience the same positive feeling. Then the brain and body are convinced they have to have the drug to feel like themselves. These brain adaptations can make our bodies less and less able to experience pleasure from other things they once enjoyed, like food, exercise, sex, or social events.

Withdrawal Symptoms

If users are without the drug, withdrawal sets in, and they will begin to feel incredibly sick, anxious, and restless. Withdrawal is common, especially when individuals use illegal drugs or misuse prescription drugs. Drug misuse means taking a drug differently than how doctors advise. This includes crushing pills that are supposed to be swallowed or taking someone else’s prescription to get high rather than to heal.

How Different Drugs Affect the Body

Different drugs affect the human brain and body in different ways.

  • Alcohol disrupts the parts of the brain that affect decision-making, problem-solving, remembering, and learning.
  • Marijuana is a bit more complicated in regards to what it does to the human body. Common side effects of marijuana use on the body include forgetting things you’ve just learned and having trouble focusing.
  • Prescription pain relievers, classified as opioids or sedatives, disrupt heart rate and breathing rate.
  • Heroin is similar to opioid pain relievers in that it also slows the heart rate and breathing to dangerous levels. If heart rates are slowed enough, it could lead to coma or death.
  • Prescription stimulants, such as ADHD medications can increase body temperature to harmful levels and trigger an irregular heartbeat, heart failure, or seizures.
  • Cocaine and methamphetamine can cause users to get violent, have panic attacks, feel paranoid, or even have a heart attack.
  • MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly, can cause users to feel fuzzy for a long time after taking it and can lead to problems with attention, memory, and sleep.
  • LSD, also known as Acid, can lead to intense emotional mood swings and the inability to recognize reality. LSD also has repercussions in the form of frightening flashbacks that can occur even after a long time since use.
  • Inhalants can cause damage to the human heart, kidneys, lungs, and brain. Even a healthy person can have heart failure and die within minutes of sniffing an inhalant.

Long-term use of drugs can change the brain’s chemical systems and circuits, affecting functions that include learning, judgment, decision-making, stress management, memory, and impulse behavior.

Because most drugs have such drastic effects on the human body, everyday functions like driving can’t be performed safely while under the influence. Marijuana can slow reaction time and impair your judgment of distance, and decrease coordination. Cocaine and methamphetamine can cause a driver to become aggressive and reckless. Most sedatives classified as benzodiazepines can make drivers feel dizzy and drowsy. All of these effects can lead to crashes that can cause injuries and even death. Drug use causes a chemical disruption to normal human brain function, making it unsafe and potentially even fatal.

Risk Factors For Addiction

drug addict taking pillsSome people are more likely to get addicted to drugs. If there is trouble at home, especially as a child, users are more likely to have a drug problem and become addicted later on in life. Children need nurturing and care, so when there are many fights, or a parent is using drugs, the chance of dependence goes up for these individuals.

People who have untreated and unrecognized mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD, are more likely to become addicted to drugs because they may use drugs to feel better and lessen the effects of their other illnesses. Issues at school or work, with friends or partners, or with your body image or family dynamics – all of these can increase your chance of addiction. Drugs become the outlet and escape from these problems. Surrounding yourself with people who are addicted to drugs increases your chance of becoming addicted because the opportunity to use the drug is more frequent, socially accepted, and perhaps even encouraged by the drug user. When individuals begin using drugs at an early age, it affects how their bodies and brains develop. Because frequent drug use correlates with an increase in tolerance levels, it’s almost inevitable that those who started using drugs when they were young are more likely to run into issues with addiction later on.

What happens to the human anatomy when drugs are introduced? A drug user’s biology influences his or her chances of becoming addicted to the substance and more likely to use drugs. The genes that people are born with account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may also increase the risk for drug use and addiction. Everybody reacts to drugs differently. Some people like the feeling the first time they try a drug and want more, while others are able to never use or even want to use again. Unfortunately, scientists do not have a test yet that will predict how each person will react to a drug, or whether they will become addicted, but a combination of these biological factors can assist in understanding how the chances of dependence on drugs add up.

While no one aspect can predict if a person will become addicted to drugs, a combination of things impacts your risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.

Addiction is a Disease

Drug reactions in the human system make the body habituated to and dependent on the substance. Without the drug that the body has been tricked into believing it needs to survive, addiction can become more important than the need to eat or sleep. This makes it clear that drug addiction is not only a disease but a chronic disease, meaning that the sickness (drug addiction) remains with those addicted to drugs even if they stop using. The brain’s alterations from drug addiction can be persistent. This is why drug addiction is also considered a “relapsing disease”, which means that those in rehabilitation from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of abstaining. It’s common for an individual addicted to drugs to relapse, but relapse doesn’t mean that treatment doesn’t work. This relapse “norm” associated with the disease can discourage people from getting clean, but a person with an addiction can get treatment, and live drug-free. Although, if individuals with drug addiction begin to use drugs again, then the drug addiction will take over again and worsen as any other disease does with time.

Preventing and Treating Addiction

As with other chronic health conditions, drug treatment should be ongoingly adjusted based on how the patient responds. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, our staff carefully create treatment plans for each client and we constantly update the plan to fit our client’s rehabilitation path.

As with most other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, treatment for drug addiction is not a cure, but it is a way to manage. Research demonstrates that combining addiction treatment medicines with behavioral therapy ensures the best chance of success for most patients. Treatment approaches tailored to each patient’s drug use patterns and any co-occurring medical, mental, and social problems can lead to continued recovery. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we apply a holistic approach to recovery with reputable psychiatrists looking at addiction treatment medicines for the client and skilled psychologists supporting clients with behavioral therapy.

Fortunately, drug use and its effect on the brain and body is preventable. In fact, results from research funded by The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have shown that prevention programs involving families, schools, communities, and the media are effective for preventing or reducing drug use and addiction. Therefore, education and outreach are key in helping to understand the possible risks of drug use and the harm it causes to the body.

The brain changes over time with drug use, disturbing a person with addiction’s ability to practice self-control and resist intense desire to take drugs. It’s important to understand the science of drug use and why the inability to stop “cold turkey” is not a lack of willpower but a momentous challenge against your own brain function.

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