What is Addiction?
Addiction refers to an overpowering need for drugs or alcohol, resulting in compulsive use, even though it might be adversely affecting the addicted individual’s life. The craving to use drugs or alcohol is so strong that it becomes more important than anything else, including family, friends, career, even health. These cravings are the result of the effects of the drugs and/or alcohol on the brain.
Whilst the physical effects produced by each drug of of choice differ, they all have one common effect – on the brain! This is why addiction has been referred to as a brain disease. Repeated use of drugs or alcohol alters the structure and functioning of the brain, resulting in uncontrollable cravings to use drugs or alcohol.
It also affects those areas in the brain responsible for self control and decision making. It is for this reason individuals who are addicted will go to any extent to procure and use drugs, including lying and stealing. The brain changes can persist, even long after stoppage of the drugs and alcohol and are largely responsible for relapse.
Addiction is a progressive and chronic disease. One does not become addicted overnight. It usually starts with experimentation and/or occasional use of drugs or alcohol when under stress or when in emotional or physical pain. Since these substances make you feel better, on the face of it, even though in actuality it’s temporary and a false sense of relief that one experiences, one tends to start using them more and more. While not every one who uses alcohol or drugs becomes addicted, occasional substance use can lead to abuse and finally dependence.
Substance Abuse is when use of the substance becomes physically or mentally dangerous for the Individual – i.e. it affects your health and you have been warned by the doctor, it’s causing you to neglect your children or not show up for work repeatedly and/or the use of the substance causes interpersonal, social or legal problems but still continues. While substance abuse involves maladaptive use of the drug, it still has not progressed to full blown dependence. However continued substance abuse can lead to Substance Dependence.
Substance Dependence includes the symptoms of substance abuse along with two important symptoms which, among others, differentiates it from Abuse. These are withdrawal and tolerance. Withdrawal refers to a range of symptoms from mild physical discomfort like sweating, tremors, nausea, headaches etc. to severe confusion and hallucinations if the individual restrains from using the substance for very long. This compels the individual to consume the drug to relieve withdrawal symptoms. Tolerance is needing more and more of the substance over time to experience the same effects.
When an individual becomes physically dependent on the substance he/she loses complete control, experiences strong cravings to use the substance and is unable to quit even though it might be causing him or her to get into trouble repeatedly – be it with family, at work or even with the law. The lives of these individuals start revolving around the substance – either trying to get it, using the substance or recovering from its effects.
Their social, occupational – even day to day functioning is adversely affected. They abandon or neglect all activities which interfere with their addiction, be it important family, social and/or occupational duties and responsibilities or recreational activities they earlier enjoyed. They more often than not end up using more of the substance than they intend to.
Individuals suffering from addiction usually have a history of trying to quit but being unable to do so. Individuals suffering from addiction need professional help and are rarely, if not never, able to quit on their own. While complete cures are uncommon, like any other chronic disease, addiction can be managed successfully with medicines, behavioral and cognitive therapies.
Relapse is common and should not be taken as failure rather a sign that the treatment program of the individual might need revision and/or the individual might need closer supervision. With a well tailored treatment program designed to meet the unique needs of each individual suffering from addiction, most of those who are addicted are able to recover successfully. Recovery might happen after a few minor setbacks but it can and does happen.