People use substances like alcohol, tobacco, prescription or illicit drugs (such as marijuana, cocaine or heroin). Initially substance use can begin as a way of avoiding physical or psychological pain, or to fill a perceived void in life, which helps to explain why individuals suffering from depression and related illnesses frequently turn to these substances to try and escape their symptoms. But instead of improving their situation, individuals frequently become dependent on the substance used, creating an additional and often more serious problem to overcome: addiction.

What Is Addiction
Addiction to alcohol or drugs refers to a chronic brain disease resulting in a compulsion to seek out and use these substances despite the many risks – physical, legal, social and financial. Addiction, or dependency, changes the structure and function of the brain, so at first an individual may voluntarily choose to drink alcohol or use drugs; changes to brain chemistry then the person unable to control their desire for the substance. Addiction is also frequently characterized by an ever-increasing meaning that the individual requires more and more of the substance, and requires it more frequently, in order to achieve the same level of pleasure or “high”.

Alcohol is among the most frequently abused substances. It is socially acceptable, affordable, and easily available. Alcohol use or abuse can alter brain chemistry, leading to alcohol dependency or alcoholism.
How much is “too much?”

When it comes to determining the line between “acceptable” and “at-risk” drinking, public health and safety experts often focus on the quantity of alcohol consumed. It is not the amount that counts, but the pattern of use and the emotional and behavioral changes that result from drinking. These are the most reliable indicators of an alcohol problem.

Alcoholism (also known as alcohol dependence) refers to an addiction to alcohol. Alcohol becomes the central focus of the individual’s life, and he or she is unable to stop using alcohol. These attempts may fail due to the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as shakiness, nausea, severe hangovers, or because of the emotional symptoms, such as nervousness, serious cravings for alcohol, or worsening depression.

Like drinking alcohol, using other drugs routinely alters brain chemistry. It is the brain’s desire for more that defines drug abuse, and explains why, like alcoholism, drug abuse is a disease, not a lack of willpower.

Drug Addiction
Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease that results in a compulsion to seek out and use substances despite the many risks – physical, legal, social and financial involved. Drug abuse changes the structure and function of the brain, so although at first an individual may voluntarily choose to use drugs, eventually, changes to brain chemistry render the person unable to control their desire for drugs.

Why Do Some People Who Use Drugs Become Addicted, While Others Don’t?
Specialist believes that several factors can increase a person’s risk of developing an addiction including:

  • Genetics – Hereditary factors may account for up to 60% of a person’s propensity to become addicted.
  • Other Brain Illnesses – Individuals with depression or bipolar disorder face a significantly increased risk of addiction.
  • Environment – A person’s family life and social interactions can be contributing factors.  If exposed to drug or alcohol abuse of a parent or older sibling as a child an individual is at greater risk of developing their own drug problem as an adult.

Established methods for treating substance abuse have been shown to be effective in individuals who are motivated to recover and are committed to getting the support they need. Success in recovery from addiction requires a significant lifestyle change, and constant daily vigilance to remain sober and drug-free.

There are several options available to address dependence on alcohol or other substances:
Intensive hospital treatment, either inpatient or outpatient, may be recommended to break the cycle of dependence.

Individual or group psychotherapy may also be helpful.
Many people find 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous to be extremely beneficial in overcoming substance abuse and living in recovery.
There are some medications available to help patients overcome the symptoms of substance dependence.   Most often, medications are used in combination with behavioral therapy to yield the best results.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are chronic diseases, meaning that they must be managed over a lifetime.  As is the case with other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma or depression, there is always the possibility that the disease will relapse, even if the individual remains sober and drug-free for a long period of time. It is important not to associate relapse with failure.  Instead, relapse indicates that the individual’s treatment program should be reevaluated and perhaps revised to ensure ongoing recovery.

Clinical Psychologist Umar Raza