Why do people get addicted?

When someone takes their first sip of alcohol or their first hit of marijuana, they probably don't envision themselves ever becoming a habitual user. But according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 19 million Americans struggle with substance use disorders each year.

Addiction is insidious, slowly hijacking your ability to make safe, sensible decisions about alcohol and drug use. It isn't simply an issue of willpower ? addiction is the result of significant changes to the way your brain functions, making it nearly impossible to "just say no."

How substance abuse affects the brain

Under normal circumstances, your brain is wired to reward you for performing healthy behaviors. Every time you eat, exercise, or have positive social interactions, your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, also known as "the pleasure chemical." In short, dopamine makes you feel good, encouraging you to perform these activities again and again.

Drinking alcohol or taking drugs can also trigger a dopamine release ? one that's extremely large and powerful. These surges of dopamine flood your brain's reward system, causing you to associate substance abuse with pleasure, which hooks you into wanting more and more. Soon, you develop uncontrollable cravings, and the drugs and alcohol are no longer a desire, but a need.

Tolerance and dependence lead to addiction

As the frequency of your substance abuse increases, so does your tolerance. Tolerance is when your brain and body adapt to a substance, requiring more of it to achieve the same feelings of pleasure. But when addiction takes hold and dependence forms, you eventually stop feeling pleasure altogether.

With dependence, you need to take drugs or alcohol simply to feel normal, both physically and emotionally. You may find it hard to function without them, experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, anxiety, and tremors. At this point, you're not using to feel pleasure, but to prevent pain.

Why some people get addicted and others do not

While the precise causes of addiction aren't known for sure, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing addiction. These include:

  • Genetics

Researchers believe some people are genetically predisposed to drug or alcohol addiction. If you have family members with addictive disorders, especially parents or siblings, you're at a higher risk of developing one yourself.

  • Environment

Peer pressure, difficult family situations, or early childhood trauma, including physical or sexual abuse, can contribute to drug or alcohol abuse.

  • Mental health disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 40% of American adults with substance use disorders have a co-occurring mental illness. If you have depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD, you've got a greater chance of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Overcoming addiction

Addiction is a powerful and devastating disease, but with proper diagnosis and treatment, recovery is possible. Individual treatment plans depend on your specific needs, but most programs focus on the following:

  • Detox

Withdrawal symptoms are managed in a safe, medically supervised environment. Once you're physically and psychologically stable, you can properly prepare for recovery.

  • Individual and group therapy

Working one-on-one with counselors, or in groups with other patients, you'll work to identify your triggers and develop coping strategies to remain sober.

  • Education

Learning about addiction and any underlying mental health disorders can help you understand your condition and prevent relapse.

  • Aftercare planning

Recovery is a lifelong process, and you'll need a support system in place to meet your long-term goals. An aftercare counselor will connect you with resources, programs, and organizations to help you stay committed to your sobriety.

Addiction treatment at Alvarado Parkway Institute

For over 35 years, Alvarado Parkway Institute has been treating addictive disorders in San Diego. We offer both an inpatient residential treatment and outpatient treatment services, and our team of competent, caring health professionals is dedicated to helping patients achieve long-term sobriety.

If you're ready to break the destructive cycle of addiction, call our 24-hour crisis line at (619) 667-6125. Recovery is possible with help from Alvarado Parkway Institute.