What is addiction ?

Recent development in the field of neuroscience paved the way to a much more accurate and better understanding of why we can become addicted to a substance or behaviour. The ability to observe how different drugs effect and progressively change the chemistry and structure of our brain has helped us to uncover the reason behind the characteristics that define this medical disorder. We now know that the compulsive behaviour, loss of control and inability to stop despite the harmful consequences to the individual and those around them are all caused by these specific changes in someone's brain chemistry. 

Any substance or behaviour that can lead to addiction has the ability to directly or indirectly influence a specific network within the brain frequently referred to as “the reward system”. This system is responsible for translating the behaviours (such as sex) or substances (i.e. food) that are essential to our survival into a pleasurable experience. Depending on the individual's biology and other risk factors, the enormous potency of both alcohol and drugs can influence the communication within this system in such a way that the person is tricked into qualifying a substance as extremely important for their survival or happiness and wellbeing. This leads to a wanting more and repetition of drug taking or behaviour causing the brain to adapt and therefore create a level of dependency that can result in addiction. There are numerous factors that influence why and how a person values the experience of a specific substance or behaviour but we now know that this is at the heart of the process that leads to addiction.

It is because of these specific changes in the brain that stopping the usage of a substance or compulsive behaviour is such a challenge for the individual that is addicted. The drug(s) or behaviour has come to serve as a coping mechanism and its presence therefore a vital, sometimes all consuming component in their life. Fortunately, there are treatments that help counteract and re-balance the effects of substance abuse. A deeper understanding of what alcohol and drug addiction is has helped us to develop treatments based on these latest findings and has shown us that addiction is neither ones fault nor intention but a medical disorder that can be treated successfully. 

Why do some become addicted while others do not?

There is no single factor that can predict whether a person will become addicted or not to a specific substance or behaviour. Studies however have identified several factors that contribute to the vulnerability of an individual and increase the risk for addiction. For example, our genes in combination with environmental influences are estimated to account for almost half of our vulnerability to addiction. Psychological problems have also been linked to an increase in vulnerability. Dual diagnosis, the condition of suffering from a mental health disorder along with a substance abuse problem is quite common amongst people that struggle with addiction. A mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder sometimes causes addiction due to self-medicating and both problems should therefore always be treated at the same time. Environmental factors such as family and friends, socioeconomic status or physical abuse can also influence the course of drug abuse in a person's life. 

At the moment, we don't know enough to predict who will become an addict or not but the more risk factors someone has, the greater the chance that the use of a drug can lead to addiction. 

Different kinds of potentially addictive drugs and behaviour

Over the years people have qualified specific drugs based on the effect they have on our central nervous system. Some are called stimulants because they cause improved awareness, confidence and energy. Others are labeled depressants for they reduce functional or nervous activity leading a person to feel relaxed and more confidant or social. Opiates, hallucinogens and prescription drugs also categorize other, specific substances that can lead to addiction. The list below presents the basic information regarding certain addictive behaviours and mental health problems that sometimes co-exist. For a more in depth look at any of the topics below, please follow the link included in the text when provided for. 

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol is a depressant and one of the most dangerous of the abused drugs. About 50% of all patients in the emergency room have varying levels of alcohol in their blood. It interferes with both judgment and performance and can promote aggressive behaviour. Over time it changes ones brain structure and function which can lead to dependency or addiction. The effects of long term alcohol abuse have been thoroughly studied and the best known complication is liver disease (fatty liver and liver cirrhosis). Chronic consumers of alcohol who stop taking this substance can experience mild to severe withdrawal symptoms which can be dangerous and even fatal. Depending on the individuals age, medical condition and history of alcohol abuse a medical detoxification process might be needed to help stabilize and secure a safe transition. For further, more in-depth information please click here

Drug Addiction

Drug Addiction

Drug addiction, sometimes referred to as substance dependence, is a highly complex medical disorder that has affected the lives and well-being of many throughout our history. It is characterized by compulsive drug use despite the serious negative consequences for the afflicting individual. In addition to the compulsion to take a specific substance, negative physiological and emotional features frequently referred to as withdrawal, occur when the drug is not taken. The symptoms one experiences when going through withdrawal are, in general, opposite those of the positive experience induced by the drug itself. Tolerance to the abused substance is another characteristic of drug addiction. It means that over time an increased dose of the drug is needed to produce the same response.

Although the neurobiology of drug addiction is yet to be fully understood, much progress has been made these last few decades due to advancements in science and technology. Brain imaging, a technique that allows specialists and researchers to observe the activity of the human brain without invasive neurosurgery, has taught us a lot about how drugs affect the chemistry and structure of the brain. As an example, we now know that the addictive effect of most of the substances abused involves the activation of a specific neurochemical called dopamine in critical brain regions dealing with motivation and emotional reinforcement. As a result, the individual abusing the substance values the drug as important or even critical and dependence can develop over time. Such findings are not only helping us to gain a better understanding of what drug addiction is but also provide us with vital information on how to treat it more successfully.

Addictive substances are distinguished and categorized by their effect on the central nervous system, how they are used and their primary ingredient. For more in-depth information about drug addiction itself or a specific substance please click here.


Sex Addiction

Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is categorized as a process or behavioral addiction. By comparison to an addictive substance, this behaviour increases the level of the very same neurotransmitters via the existing neural pathways of the brain. Neurotransmitters are endogenous brain chemicals that play a vital role in the path leading to addiction. Just as chronic use of specific drugs can lead to a dependency, sex is a behaviour that can be taken to extremes and lead to problems that resemble the characteristics of those caused by drug addiction. Anyone suffering from sex addiction will have little trouble identifying with the behaviors, thoughts and feelings of those who struggle with a substance use disorder. Sex has become a “fix”, a destructive coping mechanism caused by an imbalance in body, mind and spirit.
The recovery process of sex addiction is similar to that of drug addiction. It involves identifying the underlying issues and changing the behaviour that is painful and damaging through evidence based therapies.

Gambling Addiction

Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction is sometimes regarded as an impulse control problem. The urge to continuously gamble despite the harmful consequences or desire to stop is similar to that of someone who struggles with substance abuse. Studies suggest that here is a genetic factor in becoming a gambler and research has shown that compulsive gambling involves the same areas of the brain as those that suffer from alcohol or drug addiction. Like other process or behavioural addictions, gambling can influence a specific circuit in the brain frequently referred to as the reward system. Over time, the specific changes that occur then lead to a dependency or addiction but why some are more vulnerable then others is still not fully understood.

Treatment and recovering from gambling addiction is a process similar to that of a substance addiction. It involves identifying and treating the underlying issues through evidence based therapies, support and compassion. 

Dual Diagnosis

Dual Diagnosis

Dual Diagnosis is a term often used to describe someone who is suffering from both a mental health and substance abuse disorder. Also known as comorbidity, dual diagnosis is quite common amongst those who suffer from addiction. An estimated thirty to fifty percent of those diagnosed with an emotional or psychiatric disorder also struggles with substance abuse and dependency. it is important to note that when diagnosed these disorders do not co-exist separately but overlap each other in ways that are complex and not yet fully understood. The relationship between mental illness and substance abuse is often considered to be either a form of self-medicating or the cause or worsening of a mental health disorder. Undiagnosed, people who suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or any other metal health problem may find a relief from the symptoms caused by the illness when using a specific substance. Over time this form of self-medicating can lead to abuse and addiction. Drugs and alcohol can also cause the onset of a mental health disorder. They can trigger the symptoms that define the illness for the first time due to a vulnerability of someone to a specific substance.

When diagnosed, both disorders should be treated simultaneously to increase the changes of a successful recovery. A flexible and personalized treatment plan is needed to help someone recover and heal from both the addiction and mental health disorder. For more in-depth information on dual diagnosis please click here.

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