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How Does Drug Addiction Start?

A man thinking while he looks out of a vehicle.

People who have never experienced addiction often wonder why someone would want to become addicted to a substance. They ask themselves why anyone would use a substance that could potentially lead them down that path. Many of these questions don’t have simple answers, and the questions that do have answers, are not easy to understand.  The best way to explore the way addiction begins is to peel back the complex issues layer by layer and examine the way each component relates to the overall matter.

How the Cycle Begins

While humans are the most intelligent species, we are also the most hedonistic, or pleasure-seeking. We pursue and enjoy things that make us feel good like tasty food and drinks, fun activities, comfortable environments and much more. Every time the brain learns of something pleasurable as we develop from infants into adults, it stores the memory and the source of that good feeling, also known as a rush of dopamine. Healthy brains can store that good feeling away and move on with life, and the brain will continue to associate that good feeling with that memory for the future.

When someone consumes drugs, the brain does not function as it would normally, and it begins to release more dopamine than it usually would. The reabsorption of the dopamine is blocked by the way the drugs alter the brain’s chemistry, causing a prolonged sensation of happiness or euphoria, longer than a person would experience if they were not using drugs. Now, being the hedonistic humans we are, the brain will begin to ask for more and more of that good feeling, every time requiring just a little bit more than before, thus increasing the dosage of the drug needed to feel that wonderful effect once again, but also building tolerance. Soon, simple things that are not related to the drug don’t seem to make them happy, only the drug does. Things that someone used to enjoy now seem dull and pointless, and anything that has to do with consuming the drug that releases that good feeling becomes a priority.

While this is a very oversimplified explanation of how one slips into an addiction cycle, it shows how much of the brain chemistry is affected by drugs, and how dopamine and the reward center are slowly mutated with every use.

Do Gateway Drugs Exist?

People tend to assume that some drugs are more addictive than others. While there is truth to this, every addiction is dependent on many factors. People begin to alter their brain chemistry with drugs that are more commonly accepted in society because of their legality. Without having to take the risk of obtaining illicit drugs, many people turn to more readily available substances like prescribed painkillers and alcohol to achieve an altered state. While these substances are seen as less harmful, they are no “safer” than illicit drugs that carry much more stigma. When combined with certain risk factors that can make someone more susceptible to addiction, these drugs become even more dangerous, pulling those who misuse them into a territory where they may begin to experiment with more powerful substances.

Common Addiction Risk Factors:

  • Hereditary links to addiction
  • Environmental exposure to drugs
  • High-stress lifestyle
  • Family history of addiction
  • Poor mental health
  • Access to drugs

Why do People Do Drugs?

Every single drug user has a unique experience, and to break through the stigma surrounding addiction, we need to see people as individuals. However, there are certain commonalities these people share that can be attributed to their drug misuse.

They want to feel better: Many people start doing drugs to alleviate other symptoms. NIDA states that this may contribute about 40-60 percent of the person’s risk of addiction. Some people do not have access to mental healthcare or are too ashamed to seek it. Others begin their addiction with prescription medication such as opioids for an injury or pain management and fall into a cycle of misuse due to the addictive nature of the substances.

They want to do better: Some drugs like amphetamines can make people feel falsely superhuman. The chemicals in the brain are altered in such a way as to skew the reality of their abilities. People who often suffer from other mental health issues may take various kinds of drugs to continue living in that high state. Even though things are not going well when they are high, they may perceive them to be great, and to keep that going, they continue to use the drug.

They’re curious: People who begin experimenting with drugs early on have to deal with many factors like peer pressure, drugs in their home environment, and being new to risk-taking behavior at a young age. Teens are particularly vulnerable because of their need to find independence from parental and social rules.

They want to feel good: Those who are looking for an escape from their daily misgivings often seek pleasure to offset their dread, but it’s not only people who are down in the dumps. People from all walks of life like to feel good, because it’s human nature. Different drugs take on different effects leading to a self-medicating ritual among users.

Early Prevention

There is no single factor that can determine who will or won’t be affected by addiction. Some people who are faced with drug use disorder are exposed early on, as children, while others are introduced to drugs later on in adulthood, usually as a means of coping with deeper issues. For teens and children, parental supervision and support are very important for prevention. When parents have a good relationship with their children, they are more in tune with their behavior and emotions as they develop. Adults should also seek mental health help when they feel that their thoughts, feelings, and urges begin to fall into problematic patterns. Addiction is a slippery slope and can affect anyone but educating the public about the dangers involved with drug use is one small way to help battle the current epidemic of drug misuse in America.

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