Why Are Drugs Addictive?

woman addicted to pills

Drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disorder classified by the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) as a mental illness. The DSM-5 is used by physicians to diagnosis mental disorders. Drug abuse, dependence, and addiction are now known as Substance Use Disorder (SUD), and diagnosed with varying degrees of severity.

Substance Use Disorder is characterized by compulsive drug seeking despite negative consequences. Those with a SUD may:

  • Try unsuccessfully to slow down or stop drug use
  • Find they need increasingly higher doses to get the desired effect
  • Focus most of their attention on obtaining and using drugs
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms if drug use stops

Addiction affects the way the brain communicates, causing dysfunction in the way messages are sent, received, and acted upon. The damage caused to the brain by drug use makes breaking the hold of addiction challenging.

How Addiction Rewires the Brain

When you experience something pleasurable, the reward center of your brain is triggered naturally to release chemical messengers like dopamine to make you feel good. Opioid receptors are also activated, reinforcing pleasure and relieving pain. This makes you want to repeat the experience.

Addictive substances also activate opioid receptors and trigger the reward center to increase dopamine levels, but at much higher levels than happens naturally. The intensity of the response may produce euphoria, which strongly reinforces the behavior. Higher dopamine levels reinforce pleasurable sensations and behaviors by linking enjoyable experiences with a desire to do them again.

Vital areas of your brain are impacted by drug use, including areas that regulate motivation, thinking, planning, problem solving, and stress response. Dysfunction in these areas adversely influences healthy responses. As drug use continues, your brain adapts to unnaturally high levels of dopamine and overactivation of opioid receptors; more deeply ingraining the drug-seeking behavior.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “This dopamine signal causes changes in neural connectivity that make it easier to repeat the activity again and again without thinking about it, leading to the formation of habits.”

The NIDA warns that “Large surges of dopamine ‘teach’ the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.”
As drug use continues, your brain becomes stuck in a constant state of overstimulation, and demands increasingly higher amounts of the drug to deliver the desired effect. This is called tolerance and means your body has become physically dependent on the presence of the drug.

At this point, if drug use stops, withdrawal and intense cravings will occur. Tolerance begins the cycle of addiction. Eventually, even high doses of drugs are not enough to trigger a pleasure response, and you may be taking drugs just to feel “normal.”

Regular drug use also damages your brain’s frontal lobes, which controls judgement, problem solving, memory, emotional expression, and morality. Impairment of these functions may cause you to be incapable of rational decision making, to behave immaturely, and to care only about your own feelings with little regard for others. Damage to the frontal lobes may make you incapable of stopping drug use on your own.

Brain damage caused by drug use may not be permanent. By undergoing medically supervised detoxification and participation in a comprehensive addiction treatment program, your brain has the potential to heal, and you can achieve long-term recovery.

Why Do Some People Become Addicted but Not Others?

Scientists believe that some people do have an inherited, genetic predisposition toward addiction. According to the NIDA, the potential for addiction may be influenced by biology, including development, and environment.

  • Biology – genes, stage of development, gender, and ethnicity. Statistically, according to NIDA, genes and environmental influences on gene expression, account for 40-60 percent of an increased risk for addiction. They also state that teens and anyone with a mental disorder are at a greater risk of drug use and addiction.
  • Environment – family, school, and neighborhood. For young people, risk of drug use and addiction are increased by misuse of drugs or alcohol by family members, legal violations by family members, a lack of parental supervision, poor school performance, poor social skills, friends who use drugs, ready availability of drugs, community poverty, or a neighborhood environment where drug sales and use are common.

Studies have found a strong link between childhood trauma, including sexual and physical abuse, and substance use and mental disorders. As with children, adults who experience trauma are also at an increased risk for both disorders. Other factors impacting adult addiction include having friends and family who use drugs, having a mental disorder, and economic factors.

One of many studies supporting the relationship between genes, the environment and addiction is published on the National Institutes of Health website. The study, Genes and Addictions, recognizes that genetic and environmental factors contribute to the use of addictive substances and to addiction. The study states, “Addictions are moderately to highly heritable,” and that addictions are “also profoundly influenced by lifestyle and individual choices.”

Seeking Professional Help

If you’re struggling with a SUD, it’s important that both you and your loved ones understand that addiction is a treatable chronic disease, just like diabetes, asthma, or other chronic conditions. As with all chronic diseases, you need professional help to learn to manage your addiction so you can live a healthy, drug-free life. Ask your physician for guidance, or contact the addiction specialists at Midwest Recovery Centers for information and answers to your questions.

In our holistic approach to substance abuse recovery, Midwest Recovery Centers focuses on strengthening and supporting the entire person – mind, body, and spirit. Our underlying philosophy for treating prescription or illegal drug abuse is based on the principles of 12-step programs, emphasizing accountability, respect, and recovery.

Contact Midwest Recovery Centers today to start your recovery now.


Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., MAADC II
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.

Staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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