What is an Addiction?

An addiction can be viewed as a compulsive craving and seeking of a substance, even in the face of negative consequences. Humans can experience a variety of addictive behaviors, but addictions to drugs and alcohol can prove detrimental to one’s lifestyle or even fatal. Drug and alcohol abuse kills more than 14,000 Americans every year.

What are the Symptoms of Addiction?

Following is a list of symptoms, or indicators, that a person may be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Typically, a person who is addicted exhibits three of these behaviors over at least one month or repeatedly over a longer period of time:

  • A substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than intended.
  • A persistent, repetitive desire exists or there is one or more failed attempts to cut down or control the substance.
  • Great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to get the substance, taking the substance or recovering from its effects.
  • Social, occupational or recreational activities that were once important are given up or reduced because of substance abuse.
  • Continued substance abuse, despite knowledge of having social, psychological or physical problems that are caused or worsened by use of the substance.
  • Need for increased amounts of the substance in order to achieve intoxication or desired effect. Or, there is a marked lessened effect with the continued use of the same amount of the substance.
  • Person experiences typical withdrawal symptoms when drug or alcohol use is stopped, including cold sweats, delusions, restlessness and agitation, hallucinations, convulsions, nausea, vomiting and anxiety.
  • Substance is sometimes taken to relieve or avoid these withdrawal symptoms.

A simplified model for self-screening of drug and alcohol misuse is the CAGE model. It is composed of four questions related to abuse. It is important to note that this is not a scientific tool, but a way to identify dangerous behavior. One positive answer indicates that the person might be at risk for developing a problem.
C – Have you ever felt the need to Cut down on your drinking/drug use?
A – Do you get Annoyed at criticism by others about your drinking/drug use?
G – Have you ever felt Guilty about your drinking/drug use or something you have done while drinking or using drugs?
E – Eye-opener: Have you ever felt the need for a drink and/or drug fix early in the morning?

What are the Causes of Addiction?

The exact cause or mechanism for developing an addiction is not yet fully understood. Influencing factors can be social, environmental, hereditary and even physiological. It is important to note that regardless of motivation for starting, once an individual begins using drugs that person’s ability to stop is greatly compromised. Below is a short list of possibilities:

  • There is a “built-in” increased risk of becoming addicted due to hereditary factors.
  • Changes in the brain take place as a result of drug use, which contribute to addiction and abuse. Addictive drugs activate the brain’s reward system, and the promise of a reward is very intense.
  • Environmental and cultural factors play a role in who has access to drugs and alcohol.
  • Some drugs possess reinforcing qualities that make them more addictive than others.
  • Drugs’ “numbing” effects help to ease the emotional/physical pain that the individual is experiencing.
  • Drugs produce a sense of euphoria that make the individual feel good.

Research has been done, more specifically, on risk factors associated with drug use in children and adolescents. The following have been identified as risk factors:

  • A chaotic home environment (children of alcohol and other drug-dependent parents are at higher risk for developing substance abuse problems)
  • Ineffective parenting
  • A lack of rewarding and nurturing relationships
  • Poor social and coping skills
  • Failure or extreme difficulty in school
  • Inappropriately shy and/or aggressive behaviors
  • Affiliation with peers (friends) who use drugs/alcohol
  • The perception that parents, teachers and other key adults in the community approve of drug abusing behavior.

What are the Treatments for Addiction?

Research is helping to improve the success of treatment for people with addictions. When treatment is readily available, studies have found that it reduces drug use by 40 to 60% and significantly decreases criminal activity during and after treatment. Treatment methods can include both therapy and medications, or a combination of the two.

Detoxification is often the first step in overcoming an addiction. It safely manages the physical symptoms of withdrawal that are associated with stopping drug use. Medications can also be given at this time to stabilize an addict’s life and reduce drug use. Some anti-depressants, for example, are effective in stopping the use of nicotine. However, it is important to follow this up with treatments that will change a person’s behaviors.

Counseling and other behavioral therapies are crucial to success. In therapy, persons with addictions will address issues of motivation, build skills to resist drug use, replace drug-using activities and rewards with different activities and improve problem-solving activities. Group therapy or support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), can also be an effective place for people to share their stories and feel accepted by a group of individuals who is working toward the same goal.

How Common is an Addiction?

According to a 1999 National Household Survey on drug abuse, an estimated 14.8 million Americans are current users of illicit drugs. An estimated 3.6 million Americans met the criteria for dependence on these drugs.
Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, affects approximately 8.2 million adults and youth in the United States.

Additional Resources:

Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration
Alcoholics Anonymous
Narcotics Anonymous

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