How Do People Get Addicted to Drugs?

Substance abuse is one of the most misunderstood problems we have in our society. It’s common enough to affect nearly 20 percent of the population as of 2018, yet far too many people are in the dark as to how a substance abuse problem develops. While the factors that lead to a drug addiction vary from person to person, it’s important to know the basic details of how a person can become an addict if you need to seek help for yourself or a loved one.

Common Misconceptions

Before we go into greater detail about drug addiction, let’s talk about some of the common misconceptions associated with it. First of all, drug addiction is not just a bad habit that comes from a moral failing, and overcoming it isn’t about changing your ways to kick the habit. Most drug addictions are chemical dependencies that cause real physiological changes to your body, and that’s what makes them so difficult to treat and overcome. Second of all, you can become addicted to a substance by accident. This is one of the biggest reasons why we have an opioid epidemic. Prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin are prescribed to people by their doctors to treat chronic pain, and even those who take their medications as directed can become addicted. They don’t do anything “wrong.” They don’t buy illicit substances from shady people on the street, nor do they do anything illegal to get their “fix;” they are just people in pain whose bodies develop a chemical dependency.

Like Versus Want

To understand how people get addicted to drugs, you need to understand the difference between liking something and wanting it. When you like something, it activates the pleasure center of your brain, creating a spontaneous pleasurable feeling. Meanwhile, wanting something is the desire for the feeling that liking something provides. For example, when you eat a cookie that tastes good, you like it; your brain tells you that eating it felt good. Later on, you might want another cookie because your brain is craving the pleasurable feeling that the first cookie provided.

Dopamine is the chemical in your brain that is responsible for you wanting something, not liking it. Almost all addictive drugs trigger a rush of dopamine in your brain. You might still “like” the feeling that taking a drug gives you, but it’s the rush of dopamine that you’re actually chasing. The more dopamine that is released as you take your drug of choice, the more you want to take the drug. As you develop a tolerance for the drug, the feeling of “liking” it goes away until all you have left is the dopamine rush. By that point, you keep wanting to take the drug to the point of feeling like you need it, but you might not “like” taking it anymore. Your brain is effectively reprogrammed to think it needs to keep taking the drug, and your body becomes so used to having it in its system that going without it becomes painful, sometimes even fatal. You have become addicted, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome that addiction without some kind of medical or psychological intervention.

Using Without Addiction

Many people are able to use addictive substances without actually becoming addicted. They might enjoy the occasional alcoholic drink or smoke the occasional cigarette or cigar, but they don’t feel the need to keep using to the point of addiction. This could largely be because they are able to seek out alternative rewards to provide the rush that these substances provide. They engage in pleasurable hobbies, spend time with family members and friends, and otherwise find ways to fulfill their desires without turning to more of an addictive substance. This could also be why drug addiction is so common in people with other emotional or psychological problems and why many rehab programs have a psychiatric component to them. They seek out the rush that an addictive drug provides because they find that feeling of “wanting” hard to find elsewhere.

Even those who can occasionally and “safely” use alcohol or drugs can fall off a slippery slope and become addicted. Fortunately, there is always help available. If you or someone you know is addicted to drugs and alcohol, you can call us anytime at 833-497-3808. Our counselors are available 24 hours a day, and we can find you the help that you need to overcome any substance abuse problem.