Say the word addiction and drugs, words such as alcohol, heroine and cocaine often come to mind. But other substances like nicotine, marijuana, and prescription pain medications can also be addictive, so can certain activities such as gambling and sex. Whatever the case, addiction involves craving and a loss of control with the substance use or activity continuing, even if it causes harm. This can include problems with relationships, jobs, school, money, or your health.
Addiction is not due to weakness or lack of willpower. Instead, it’s a chronic disease, involving changes in the brain. There, billions of nerve cells or neurons communicate through a series of signals and chemical messengers. When messages leave one neuron, they attach to a receptor on the receiving one, like a key fitting into a lock. In addiction this communication process is disrupted. Large amounts of a brain chemical called dopamine are released, overwhelming receptors and resulting in the high that people experience, To keep that feeling going, they take the drug or engage in the behavior again and again. Eventually the brain changes and adapts, driving them to seek out more just to get the same feeling. That’s when tolerance comes in, Stopping a substance can cause withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, tremors, depression, or severe anxiety. Taking to much of a substance or a combination of substances can result in an overdose and serious illness or even death. Young people are especially vulnerable to addiction. The impulse control center of their brains, known as the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully developed making them more prone to risky behavior and using substances can cause lasting harm to their developing brains.
If you think anyone might be experimenting with substances, talk to them about it. Parents can help by taking a strong stand against substance use and teaching their kids healthier ways to deal with life stresses. Like any other disease, such as diabetes or asthma, addiction can be successfully treated. So, if you or someone you know has a problem with addiction, talk to your doctor, a mental health professional, or an addiction specialist.