February 27, 2024

How Does Addiction Start?

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Addiction, clinically described as substance use disorder, is a condition that impairs a person’s brain function and behavior, resulting in a loss of control over the consumption of legal or illegal drugs, as well as substances like alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine. Addiction means continuing to use drugs despite the damage they cause. How does addiction start, though?

The path to drug addiction often starts with the occasional use of recreational drugs in social settings, but for some, this usage becomes more frequent over time. In particular, addiction to opioids often originates from taking prescribed medications or using pills that were prescribed to someone else.

The likelihood of developing an addiction and the speed at which addiction occurs vary depending on the drug. Opioids are especially addictive, with tolerance and dependence forming rapidly, even when used as prescribed. Read on to discover:

  • How does addiction work?
  • How does addiction start in the brain?
  • How to connect with addiction treatment near you.

How do People Get Addicted to Drugs?

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How does addiction begin? People become addicted to drugs through an interplay of factors that varies from one individual to another. Everyone has a different experience with drug addiction. Initially, drug use might stem from the pursuit of pleasure or to relieve negative emotions, utilizing substances that trigger dopamine release in the brain, such as alcohol, nicotine, or illicit drugs like meth, cocaine, and heroin. This release of dopamine creates a powerful sensation of euphoria, encouraging repeated use.

Other pathways which can lead to drug addiction include:

  • Experimentation and social use: Drug use often begins in social settings or through experimentation, where the initial voluntary use is influenced by peer pressure or curiosity.
  • Prescription medications: Especially with opioids, addiction can start with the legitimate medical use of prescription drugs, which may escalate to dependence and abuse.
  • Biological factors: Genetics play a significant role, with a family history of substance use increasing the likelihood of addiction. While the concept of an addictive personality is often discussed, this is not a clinical term.
  • Psychological factors: Those with mental health disorders like depression or anxiety might use drugs as a form of self-medication, inadvertently increasing their risk of addiction.
  • Environmental influences: Factors such as access to drugs, lack of parental involvement, and exposure to high-stress environments can contribute to the initiation and escalation of drug use.

The transition from drug use to addiction involves changes in the brain’s chemistry and function, particularly in how it perceives pleasure, motivation, and memory. Over time, tolerance to the drug increases, necessitating higher doses to achieve the same euphoric effect, and withdrawal symptoms emerge if the drug is not taken, reinforcing the cycle of addiction.

Addiction is a treatable condition and not a moral failing or a result of a lack of willpower. With the right support and treatment – MAT (medication-assisted treatment), psychotherapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and counseling – it is possible for people to address both the substance use disorder and any co-occurring mental health conditions.

Why Does Addiction Happen?

Why does addiction occur, then? Addiction can unfold due to a multifaceted combination of factors that influence each person differently, making the pathway to substance use disorder highly individualized. Beyond the initial use and biological predispositions, several core reasons contribute to the development and continuation of addiction. These include:

  • Neurological impact: Substances alter the brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, movement, and emotion regulation. This abnormal surge leads to the reinforcement of drug use as a desirable action, driving many people to continue using the drug to recreate the euphoria.
  • Psychosocial factors: Emotional stress, traumatic experiences, and societal pressures can drive people toward substance use as a coping mechanism. The temporary relief or escape which drugs provides from personal or societal issues can trap people in a damaging cycle of addiction.
  • Environmental triggers: People’s surroundings, including their family dynamics, social networks, and community, can significantly influence the likelihood of addiction developing. Exposure to drug use at a young age, social normalization of substance use, and environmental stressors can all play important roles in the development of substance use disorder.
  • Adaptive processes: The body’s natural adaptation to repeated drug exposure leads to tolerance, where higher doses of the substance are required to achieve the same effects. This physiological change compels individuals to consume more, escalating their risk of dependency and addiction.
  • Coping mechanisms: For many, substance use begins as a way to self-medicate symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. Over time, reliance on substances as a primary coping strategy can evolve into addiction, particularly if underlying issues are not addressed.

Understanding why addiction happens is key to developing effective treatment and prevention strategies. Successfully treating addiction involves addressing not only the physical aspects of dependence but also the psychological, social, and environmental factors that contribute to the disorder. Recognizing addiction as a complex and multifactorial condition helps in destigmatizing it and fostering a more compassionate approach to recovery.

What Causes Addiction in The Brain

What causes drug addiction in the brain to trigger functional and structural changes? At the heart of addiction is the brain’s reward system, which is hijacked and altered by the use of drugs, alcohol, or other addictive substances. Here’s how this process unfolds:

  • Dopamine surge: When a person engages in activities that satisfy basic survival needs, such as eating or socializing, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Addictive substances mimic these natural rewards but do so to a much greater extent, flooding the brain with dopamine. This excessive dopamine release reinforces the behavior, making the individual want to repeat the substance use.
  • Rewiring of the brain: Over time, the brain’s circuitry adapts to the constant dopamine surges caused by substance use. This can dull the brain’s response to natural rewards, leading people to seek out the substance more aggressively to achieve the same euphoric effect. Additionally, areas of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control are also affected, further embedding the addiction.
  • Stress circuitry activation: Addiction shifts the brain’s stress circuits, making individuals feel uncomfortable or anxious when they are not using the substance. This change contributes to the compulsive nature of addiction, as individuals may use the substance not just for its pleasurable effects but also to avoid feeling bad.
  • Impaired decision making: The prefrontal cortex, involved in impulse control and decision-making, becomes impaired with repeated substance use. This impairment undermines an individual’s ability to resist the urge to take the drug, even when aware of its negative consequences.

Understanding that addiction is not a matter of choice or a moral failing but a chronic brain condition has shifted how treatments are developed, focusing on restoring normal brain function and behavior. Despite the challenges, current treatments combining medications and behavioral therapies have been shown to help people manage their addictions, highlighting the importance of addressing both the biological and psychological components of addiction.

FAQs

How does an addiction start?

Addiction starts as a pursuit of pleasure or escape from pain, becoming a compulsive need despite harmful consequences.

How does alcohol addiction start?

Alcohol addiction often begins with social or casual drinking that escalates into dependence as tolerance builds and drinking becomes a primary coping mechanism.

How does drug addiction start?

Drug addiction starts with voluntary use for pleasure or to relieve stress, but over time, changes in brain chemistry necessitate continued use to feel normal.

How does opioid addiction start?

Opioid addiction often begins with the prescription of opioid medications for pain relief following surgery, injury, or chronic pain conditions. Individuals may develop a tolerance to the pain-relieving effects of opioids over time, leading to increased usage and dependence. For some, dependence on prescription opioids transitions to misuse and addiction, including the use of stronger opioids like heroin.

Why do people become addicts?

People become addicts due to a complex interplay of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors, where substance use or certain behaviors become the primary means to cope with life’s challenges.

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Call Addiction Hotline Today to Get Help with Addiction

Addiction is incurable but highly treatable. Unfortunately, more than 1 million U.S. adults reported being unable to access addiction treatment in 2022. At Addiction Hotline, we’re here to help plug this gap.

When you call Addiction Hotline, you can speak with a knowledgeable and helpful expert ready to answer any questions you have about addiction and recovery.

For those who are ready to take action, we can help connect you with peer support groups, detox centers, inpatient rehabs, and outpatient programs throughout the state of California, enabling you to connect with care at an appropriate level of intensity. For immediate help fighting any type of addiction, regardless of how it started, call 855-701-0479.

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Compassionate Care for Substance Abuse Treatment

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