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What is drug addiction?

Drug addiction becomes a behavior that is characterized by drug seeking and compulsive actions that become difficult to control despite the consequences of the actions.  Choosing to misuse prescription drugs, take illicit drugs, or abuse alcohol is a voluntary choice. However, the repeated actions of using drugs or alcohol become a compulsive behavior.  Regular use of drugs and alcohol creates physical and psychological addiction. Drugs and alcohol affect the brain and every part of the body, and most drug users develop a physical dependence on the drug they are abusing.  The effects of the drug create feel-good feelings, such as euphoria, dissociation, and other unique feelings of being detached from your body. These effects become habit-forming and drug users abuse drugs to recreate the same effects as if they were using drugs for the first time.    

Most drugs affect the brain’s reward system flooding it with dopamine and those feel-good feelings.  The reward system of the brain motivates the person to continue feeling this way. Most drugs will replace the minds naturally occurring hormones, and the drug user becomes dependent on the drugs they are using.  The brain adapts to the reduction of naturally occurring chemicals and hormones and eventually develops a tolerance to the effects of the drugs. Tolerance requires the drug user to increase the amount of the drug being used to meet the growing need of the brain.  Eventually, the brain’s adaptation to the drugs leads to the person becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things. Physical and psychological addiction develops, requiring the drug user to continue using despite the consequences.    

Long-term drug use causes chemical changes in the brain, which can be reversed when the drug user enters drug treatment.  The affected functions of the brain include learning, judgment, decision-making, stress, memory, and behavior. Drugs and alcohol consume drug users emotionally, physically, and psychologically.  Some drugs are more powerful than others, such as methamphetamine, heroin, or pain medication. Stimulant drugs are powerfully addictive because of the response it creates within the body. Opioids cause intense physical addictions that become so severe the withdrawal pain forces drug users to continue using the drug.  Most addicts make multiple attempts to stop using; however, a relapse often happens quickly, and the drug-using behavior becomes worse after a relapse. When an addict relapses, there are strong feelings of guilt and shame causing the drug user to consume more of his or her drug of choice. Drug and alcohol treatment is the only successful way for an addict to overcome their drug addiction.      

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What causes people to become addicted to drugs?

Numerous factors contribute to someone becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Typically, it is a combination of multiple motivating factors, some that are more obvious than others, but there is always one that was the primary underlying issue.  The purpose of drug treatment is to address the underlying issues connected to the addiction. Counseling and therapy help addicts understand what caused them to become addicted to drugs or alcohol.  People take drugs for different reasons, and the underlying motivation is different for each person. Some individuals use drugs to feel good because they produce an intense feeling of pleasure and euphoria.  Other drugs cause increased energy and a false sense of well-being. Most of these effects are followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy. The feel-good emotions become addictive and are a strong motivating factor for someone to keep using drugs.  

For example, someone who comes from an abusive environment, or someone who is always bored could choose to use drugs to make themselves feel better.  Most people do not fully understand how simple it is to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. These substances provide the user with the feel-good feelings they need to avoid pain, anguish, boredom, guilt, or remorse, etc.  Many people in the country will choose to use drugs to feel better, such as if they are struggling with social anxiety, depression, and stress. The drugs and alcohol alleviate these feelings and provide a false sense of feeling good.  Stress is a strong motivating factor for people to abuse alcohol and or drugs because you believe it is alleviating stress completely. Some individuals feel the need to do better in their lives but are unsure of how to make this happen.  Drugs and alcohol become a solution to help them focus, be more productive, and accomplish more, or at least this is the illusion.  

One of the most common ways people become addicted to drugs or alcohol is through curiosity or peer pressure.  Drug and alcohol use is glamorized through social media, whether subtly or blatantly; recreational drug use is seen as being part of life.  Pure curiosity causes many people to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Curiosity leads to addiction because there are often underlying problems they are struggling with, and all of a sudden, the drugs are making them feel better.  Most human beings will search for an easy way to solve problems that they have no immediate solution for. Drugs and alcohol are presented as a solution, which is seen throughout much of the United States. Pharmaceutical companies rely on marketing new drugs as a way to solve problems that the everyday person is struggling with.  Street-level drug dealers present their product as a means to feel better, accomplish more, and regain your self-esteem. All someone needs to become addicted to drugs or alcohol is one motivating factor, and it is not always one that is obvious.  


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What are the psychological and social symptoms of drug addiction?

Any severity of drug addiction and abuse will have various degrees of physical and psychological symptoms.  Long-term drug abuse causes these symptoms to intensify, becoming worse causing more physical and emotional problems in life.  Regular use and abuse of drugs and alcohol create an inability to stop using. In most cases, this becomes dependence, and within this time, the drug user will have had made one attempt at quitting, but with no success.  The drugs have taken over psychologically and emotionally and have entirely consumed the drug user where they cannot stop using. There is also a physiological aspect, such as what opioids create when a drug user becomes physically dependent on the drugs they are abusing.  When they stop using drugs or alcohol, they experience withdrawal pain that becomes more severe without proper help.  

One psychological symptom that is obvious with most chronic drug users is the use and abuse of drugs continues despite health problems.  The drug user continues to take these substances even though they have developed an illness, legal issues, marital issues, or significant health complications.  Some drug users are not aware of the physical impact the drugs are having on their bodies and mind. Along with this, most drug addicts cannot deal with daily problems in life.  A person may have started to abuse drugs as a way to carry out particular behavior and have the courage to face challenges they are struggling with in life. Drug and alcohol use and abuse create an obsession, and the drug user may become obsessed with a substance, spending more time and energy finding ways of getting their drug choice.  Drug-seeking behavior is a common psychological trait seen by people who are abusing drugs or alcohol. 

People who are using and abusing drugs and alcohol will take unnecessary risks in life to obtain the drugs they need.  For example, this can include soliciting sex, committing theft, or selling drugs themselves. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, most drug users will engage in risky behavior.  Drinking and driving is the most common problem or operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse also impacts the way an individual socializes and relates to other people.  They will sacrifice relationships with friends and family to abuse drugs and give up activities they enjoy because of drugs or alcohol.

An example of this is dropping hobbies or activities that they enjoy such as playing sports, school activities, playing an instrument, or staying involved with family activities.  The primary focus of a chronic drug user is to maintain a good supply of the drugs they are abusing. There are secrecy and solitude, and in many cases, most drug users will abuse drugs alone.   

Drug and alcohol abuse leads to excess consumption or abuse of more than one substance.  The constant struggle of dealing with problems because of addiction, being estranged from family and friends, not working, etc., cause an addict to use more.  Someone with a substance abuse problem will struggle with legal issues because of their addiction. Along with legal issues they will have financial difficulties because all of their money is going to using drugs and alcohol.  The psychological and social symptoms of drug abuse become worse the longer the drug user continues to abuse drugs or alcohol.

What is the scope of drug addiction in the United States?

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are an estimated 164.8 million people aged 12 or older in the United States who were past-month drug users.  Two out of five people aged 12 and older did not use substances in the past month. The 164.8 million drug users include 139.8 million of those individuals who are consuming alcohol, 58.8 million who are using tobacco, and 31.9 million who are using illicit drugs.  Drug and alcohol abuse is problematic throughout the United States, and every year more people become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Prescription drug addiction is a growing problem within the country, and alcohol abuse is the third leading preventable cause of death within the country.  In 2018, roughly 139.8 million Americans aged 12 or older were past month alcohol users. Over 67 million Americans were binge drinkers in the past month, and over 16 million were considered heavy drinkers in the past month.  

About 2,2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 consumed alcohol in the past month, and 1.2 million adolescents took part in binge drinking.  About 1 in 11 adolescents in 2018 were past month alcohol users, despite adolescent alcohol abuse decreasing between 2002 and 2018. In 2018 one in five people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past year, which was a higher percentage than in 2015 and 2016.  Marijuana was the primary driver for the increase in illegal drug use despite some states legalizing the drug. There are over 43 million marijuana users throughout the United States, and the percentage of marijuana use has increased since 2017. The increase in marijuana use is seen among young adults aged 18 to 25.  Prescription pain medication abuse in the country was the second most common form of illicit drug use in 2018. Over 3.6% of the American population is misusing pain medication; however, pain medication abuse among young adults aged 18 to 25 has decreased.  

Over 63% of people who misused pain relievers in 2018 were doing so to relieve the pain they were suffering from.  More than half of the people who abused pain medication in 2018 received their recent dose of medication from a friend or family member.  In 2018 there were 4.9 million new alcohol users, 3.1 million new marijuana users, 1.9 million new prescription pain reliever users, and 1.8 million new tobacco users.  In 2018 4 out of 5 people aged 12 and older were at risk of harm from weekly use of cocaine or heroin. One-third of the people who were using marijuana were at risk of harm from weekly marijuana use.  Two out of three people perceived a significant risk of harm from daily binge drinking; among adolescents, there was a decline in perceived risk of harm with illicit drug use. In 2018 about 20.3 million people aged 12 and older had a substance use disorder related to their alcohol or illegal drug use.  Broken down, this was 14.8 million people with an alcohol use disorder and 8.1 million people with an illicit drug use disorder.  


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