When you’re in the throes of substance abuse, it can be hard to spot a growing addiction problem. Friends and loved ones can see it. If you’re wondering “what is addiction,” there’s a good chance you’re starting to see it, too. Addiction develops in stages that can be easy to miss, especially when drug or alcohol cravings start vying for your attention. Asking yourself, “am I an addict” may well be the first step towards seeing the problem.
Addiction may begin with the physical effects of drugs or alcohol, but how these effects impact your thinking and emotions drive the definition of addiction. With frequent substance abuse, the mind comes to rely on the “high” that results from drugs to the point where reliving this experience starts to take top priority in your life. These changes happen even faster in cases where underlying emotional issues, such as depression or anxiety, are there to fuel substance abuse behaviors. Ultimately, addiction has more to do with how you think and behave, causing you to choose drugs or alcohol over everything else, be it a job, a relationship, or even your life.
While it’s possible to get addicted to certain drugs the first time you use them, addiction typically develops over time as the effects of the drug disrupt the brain’s chemical system. With the most commonly abused drugs (heroin, cocaine, prescription pain pills), the “high” experience stems from a massive dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine is a primary neurotransmitter chemical that regulates critical functions throughout the brain and body, including:
In effect, the answer to the question, “what is addiction” starts with dopamine. With repeated drug (or alcohol) abuse, dopamine levels become imbalanced. This causes the brain to become increasingly dependent on the drug’s effects to produce the amount of dopamine your body needs to function normally.
Over time, these developments set off a series of changes that lead straight to addiction’s door:
Tolerance levels have to do with the brain’s sensitivity to a drug. With addictive drugs, the brain cells that produce dopamine become less and less sensitive to the drug’s effects. This means you have to keep taking larger doses to experience the “high” effects of the drug. This development causes a person to take increasingly larger or more frequent doses, or both.
As tolerance levels increase, the affected brain cells grow weaker in their ability to produce needed dopamine levels. When you start experiencing withdrawal effects, physical dependence on the drug’s effects has taken hold. Withdrawal effects reflect the state of chemical imbalance in the brain caused by the ongoing effects of the drug. These effects may take the form of:
Many try to gain relief from withdrawal by taking more of the drug, which helps for a while but only worsens the next round of withdrawal. In effect, increasing tolerance levels and withdrawal form a vicious cycle that keeps you using the drug. At this point, the question, “am I an addict” may start to rear its ugly head.
The definition of addiction wouldn’t be complete without discussing how addiction forms within the brain’s chemical system. And it begins and ends with dopamine.
Dopamine’s role in regulating reward-motivated behavior lies at the root of a growing addiction.
Under normal, drug-free conditions, dopamine levels increase whenever you engage in something that makes you feel good. An area of the brain known as the reward system tracks dopamine levels to determine which behaviors bring about positive results on any given day. Positive results may include:
From the brain’s perspective, the “high” experience you get from using an addictive drug is also positive. When a positive result happens repeatedly, your brain reward system hardwires this behavior into your daily routine. This means getting and using drugs becomes a need, much like the body’s need for food, water, and sex.
More than anything else, signs of addiction will appear in your behaviors and choices. As addiction takes hold, your life starts to revolve around getting and using drugs (or alcohol). What was once casual drug use turns into a compulsive habit where cravings for more of the drug dictate your comings and goings. Before long, getting the next “fix” will become so important that you’re willing to place anything and everything at risk, including your job, relationships, and self-respect.
If you see yourself or someone you know in the above descriptions, know that an addiction problem doesn’t go away on its own. Addiction will continue to get worse for as long as substance abuse continues. Also, know that if you want to stop, you don’t have to do it alone.
Detox and addiction treatment programs provide the level of support you need to break addiction’s hold on your life. Like addiction, recovery happens in stages, but nothing happens until you take that first step.
If you’re struggling with a drug or alcohol problem and seeking substance abuse programs in New Jersey or New York, contact Ascendant today. It will be the most important step you can take at this point in your life. Our New York alcohol detox and treatment program can help you regain control of your life and begin your recovery journey with fresh hope and support.
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Last medically reviewed August 30, 2022