What is addiction?

Addiction is a chronic (lifelong) disease. People who suffer from an addiction have an uncontrollable urge and compulsion to use dangerous substances or to engage in harmful activities despite knowing the negative consequences these may have on their lives. They’re physically or mentally unable to stop even when they try to do so.

Without treatment, addiction can damage relationships, cause problems at work and lead to financial and legal problems. Excessive drug and alcohol use can cause a range of serious health issues, and it can be fatal. Treatment for addiction includes rehabilitation, therapy and medication.

How common is addiction?

Addiction is unfortunately very common. Around 20 million people in the United States suffer from a substance use disorder. A substance use disorder often refers to substances that unnaturally increase dopamine levels in the reward pathway. These substances include prescription painkillers, illicit substances, nicotine or alcohol (alcoholism). Substance addictions are the most well-known form of addictions but people can also suffer from behavioral addictions which include the following:

  • Exercising or dieting.
  • Eating.
  • Gambling.
  • Shoplifting or other risky behaviors.
  • Having sex or viewing pornography.
  • Shopping.
  • Video gaming and the internet.

Who is likely to become to suffer from addiction?

Anyone can suffer from a substance use disorder, but people with a family history of addictions are at higher risk. People that suffer from mental health disorders including depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to have co-morbid substance use disorders as well. Noteworthy, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender populations are also vulnerable to suffer from substance use disorders because they experience significantly more psychiatric issues than the heterosexual population. Factors in these experience include things like discrimination and issues of family dynamics.

What are the symptoms of addiction?

Symptoms of addiction vary from person to person. Some people with addiction function well in daily living. They hide their activities or substance use from others. Other people have severe symptoms, including:

  • Inability to stop using: People may use a substance or engage in harmful addictive behavior even if they want to stop. They may have tried multiple times to cut down on or stop use but can’t.
  • Increased tolerance: Over time, they may need more alcohol, drugs or nicotine to feel the same euphoric effects as they did before. They also may need to continue using the same amount to cope with physiological and psychological withdrawals that they can experience with cessation or even reduction of substance use. This is because their bodies have built up a tolerance to the substances.
  • Intense focus on substances or behaviors: People with addictions become pathologically preoccupied with drugs, alcohol, or harmful behaviors. They may feel that the addiction has taken over their lives, as they spend more and more time craving, obtaining and thinking of their choice of addiction.
  • Lack of control: They may feel like they have lost complete control over their substance use and often feel helpless. They often feel guilty, depressed and/or overwhelmed over their addiction and how it’s impacted their lives.
  • Personal problems and health issues: Their addiction often impacts all aspects of their lives including their medical health, mental health, personal relationships and their careers. Often they are unable to pay their bills and purposely isolate themselves from their friends and family. They often have negative experiences with the legal system including being arrested for operating a vehicle impaired. Again, despite knowing the detrimental effects their addictions are having on them, they can’t stop use.
  • Withdrawal: People with addiction experience emotional and physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop using. Physical symptoms include shaking, sweating or throwing up. They may also become anxious, sad or angry.

What are the risk factors for addiction?

There isn’t one specific cause of addiction. Many factors contribute to a person’s risk, and anyone can develop a substance use disorder.

Certain factors increase the risk, including:

  • Genetics: Substance use disorders can be inherited (passed down through families). If you have a family history of addiction, you are at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will. For example, novelty seeking and impulsivity are inherited traits often seen in individuals with substance use disorders but that doesn’t mean that you will develop a substance use disorder if you have these traits.
  • Environmental factors: A combination of lifestyle and environmental factors also contribute to developing an addiction. These factors include violence, poverty, having access to substances, taking drugs during adolescence and extreme stress or trauma.
  • Drug use: All addictive substances (including opioids) cause changes in the brain’s “reward center.” These changes make the person crave more and more drugs to keep feeling pleasure. The cravings can be so strong that drugs become the main focus. Some individuals are affected by these substances more so than others for a variety of reasons. You may ignore relationships, job responsibilities and other obligations.
  • Mental health disorders: Bipolar disorder, PTSD and depression often occur along with substance use disorders. People with mental health disorders have an increased risk of developing substance use disorders.
  • Being a member of the LGBTQ community: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. Many LGBTQ individuals may use drugs or alcohol to cope with discrimination and violence.

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