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What is Addiction: Definition of Abuse

what are addiction and abuse

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There are many theories on why addiction happens. Why can some people try a drug and become addicted, while others do not?
Many have asked, why is having a glass of wine with dinner every night fine for some, while others will develop a drinking problem? Science is coming close to determining what makes one person more susceptible to addiction than others, and more than likely, there is a combination of factors at play.

Table of Contents

What is Substance Addiction?

While similar, there is a difference between addiction and substance abuse. One can abuse a substance without being clinically addicted to it. For substance abuse to occur, doctors say that certain criteria must be met. This can include:

  • Failing to meet responsibilities to use a substance, or because of substance use
  • Continuing to use the substance with full knowledge of any problems, health-related or otherwise, it causes
  • Legal issues arising due to substance use
  • Behaving recklessly when under the influence of the substance, or while trying to obtain the substance

All of these symptoms are also common with those who have drug addictions, but these are not addictions in and of themselves. For doctors or mental health professionals to consider a patient addicted, three or more of the following must occur:

  • Experience of withdrawal symptoms. These can include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, changes in mood, and many other physical symptoms that occur when the substance hasn’t been used.
  • Tolerance to the drug or alcohol. Tolerance occurs when more of a drug is needed to elicit the same physical effects, or when the effects are diminished when taking the usual amount.
  • Ignoring activities or obligations once loved, such as work, school, family time, social engagements, or hobbies
  • Spending large amounts of time trying to obtain the drug, taking the drug, or recovering from using the drug
  • Loss of self-control. This could mean using more of the drug than the person intended, or an inability to stop taking the drug, even when attempts have been made.
  • Using the drug, despite the negative consequences it causes. These could be related to loss of work, negatively affected familial relationships or health risks associated with drug use.

Addiction is a more serious issue than drug abuse because the person using the drugs cannot physically stop.
At this point in the process, the brain has been altered to crave the drug to function normally. As tolerance continues to build, more and more of the drug will be required to achieve the same results. This can quickly to lead to overdose, especially with hard drugs and certain prescriptions.

Drug Abuse and the Brain

brain and addictionSome drugs are more addictive than others. Thanks to scientific brain imaging, it has been discovered the addictive drugs and other substances become addictive because they change the neurons in the brain, as well as the way they behave. Most commonly, drugs impact the areas of the brain that recognize pleasure.

How does drug abuse affect the brain?

Drug abuse affects the brain by altering a person’s memory, judgment, decision-making skills, and perception of pleasure. Drug abuse changes the way neurons function in the brain. Once this happens, a person begins to perceive the drug as a prime source of pleasure, which causes the person to engage in risky behaviors to obtain the drug
As the drug takes its hold, things that once seemed enjoyable no longer create the same pleasurable feelings, while the brain begins to perceive the drug itself as a source of pleasure. Drug may also affect the areas of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, and memory. This is one reason why drug abusers may behave recklessly and why they begin engaging in riskier and riskier behavior to obtain the drug.

Reasons for Addiction

These brain chemical processes are well documented and are a large component of how addiction takes place. Why some people will experience these changes sooner and more aggressively than others isn’t fully understood. It is suspected that certain genetic and biophysical markers are at play.

What causes addiction?

The exact cause of addiction is still relatively unknown. However, evidence has been found to support claims that genetic and biophysical factors, as well as any presence of mental illness, may have something to do with why others can become addicted to a substance while others do not.
Another theory for why addiction is more prevalent in certain people is that certain groups use drugs for self-medication due to conditions like depression or anxiety. Others may use drugs to cope with physical pain.
While one person may be more likely to become addicted faster than another, anyone can develop an addiction if he abuses drugs or alcohol.

How many people in the US are addicted to drugs?

In the US, roughly 3.6 million people are addicted to drugs compared to 18.7 million who are addicted to alcohol. Most people who are addicted to drugs are addicted to multiple substances, sometimes including alcohol.

Most Common Addictions

Not all drugs are addictive, but many are. Even caffeine, found naturally in coffee and cocoa, can become an addiction. While statistics are not fully known, in the US, there are approximately 3.6 million people with drug addiction. This is compared to 18.7 million people who are addicted to alcohol. Many of these individuals are addicted to multiple substances, or addicted to drugs as well as alcohol. Millions of others are addicted to substances such as caffeine, while others are addicted to non-ingestible things like gambling, sex, and other risky behaviors.
Some drugs are more popular than others. This usually due to accessibility and cost when compared to other drugs. The most common addictive drugs are:

  • Marijuana: This is the most commonly used addictive drug. While many people believe cannabis is not addictive, this is false. One can develop a dependency on marijuana.
  • K2/Spice: Synthetic marijuana is often readily available, inexpensive, and legal. While many ingredients are continually banned from sale as controlled substances, manufacturers of these drugs are quick to develop new formulations using different ingredients to put their products back on the market. Spice can be purchased right in convenience stores or vaping shops, making it easy to acquire for young people.
  • Painkillers: Opioids (such as morphine or Percocet) are commonly abused and are among the most popularly abused pain medications.
  • Stimulants: Prescriptions like Ritalin are often abused for the “high” they produce.
  • Sedatives: Lunesta, Valium, Xanax, and other sedative medications are often taken for the euphoria they produce. They may also be used in combination with other drugs to subdue their effects.

Some prescription and over the counter cough syrups are also taken for the alcohol content as well as the codeine and promethazine content.

Getting Addiction Help

Addiction is a serious problem that can rarely be tackled without professional help. The majority of people who attempt to get clean and sober on their own will relapse. A good inpatient facility is an answer for many drug addicts because they combine the counseling they need to overcome any emotional problems which led to the drug abuse, as well as the tools and medical care they need to overcome physical and social reasons for addiction.

  1. Frances, R. J., & Miller, S.I. 1998. Clinical Textbook of Addictive Disorders, Second Edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2013. DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.


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  • Christopher Dale Spain
    I HAVE BEEN TAKING HYDROCODONE–Acetaminophen 10-325 TB for over 15 years. started out on a stronger dose for about 10 years. I take 2 tabs each morning and 2 tabs each evening. Sometimes in the past two years taken an additional 2 tabs to stay awake. my doctor is moving and the one I am being referred to only believes in sending me to a pain management Doctor. I m very depressed over the situation. I had to stop once for a week for a minor surgery or procedure and I had to have a wheelchair to get to the hospital. I am almost 68 yrs old have a chronic back muscle issue and have been advised to have both knees replaced. I cannot see in my future to be able to continue to be my mothers caretaker and will not be able to physically if I lose my pills. I am very depressed and do not know if I would be able to handle it.
  • DE Teo
    Addiction, most of all, needs redefinition because addiction as we thing of it, smears in various depths over every aspect of what we always thought was FREE WILL and the basis of “freedom of choice.” Of course, if you count neurons and synapses, you’re in very big numbers, numbers that muddle the meaning of of not the spelling of FREE WILL. But habits are adaptive and thus the basis of evolution. We live and die on how often habits keep us alive. Yet, here we are talking about how a particular habit, despite draconian laws punishing satisfying it, supposedly killing people massively. Yet, toxic other habits are not only social mores but also pillars of our culture. It was late into the last century that cigarettes were advertised as essential to an even keel and your sexual-social success. Yet, the neurobiology has only shown one thing for sure: THAT PEOPLE *NEED* TO TAKE EVER LARGER DOSES IF WHATEVER THEY ARE ADDICTED TO, SEEMINGLY BECAUSE IT TAKES EVER HIGHER DOSES TO ATTAIN WHAT EFFECT THE OBJECT OF ADDICTION PRODUCES, SO THAT ULTIMATELY THEY ARE POISONED. But we forget that an animal on a 1:1 response-reward schedule, when suddenly no longer rewarded for the response at all, engaged MORE OFTEN (eg, more desperately) in the behavior for an amazingly long time— much more than when reward was provided) that only gradually declines…but recovers immediately after a long time away from the situation. This makes habit look a lot more like something on the action side rather than the effect side by the time one is addicted. Worst still, addictive behaviors seem limitless. But if we now proscribe on us all the associated intakes that seem to produce deleterious effects on others, we are left illugalizing the source of both drug addiction and obesity, to what end? Study should be on how to break toxic habits because the sources of addiction can be any and all substances we need to survive, to keep going and to keep motivated to struggle to stay alive. For example— despite the purred presence by some shysters in healthcare industries, there is no better, more effective, or more Abilitating, treatment for pain than opioids and a rather small percentage of the population becomes self-destructive because of opioids. Rather, the opioids are taken because they enable people in pain to keep going in our nothing-for-nothing society. Shyster pain clinics too often consist of just another kind of drug dealer that supposedly “cures” pain at the wages that approach those of the providers of illicit substances. Though seemingly less toxic, these pain managers are just another kind of addiction dealers: addiction to the need to stop pain so as to carry on, not as effectively but more expensively. So, we must seek cures to drug addictions as we do for drug toxicities by identifying better who is ultimately hurt by a given drug, so as not to deny it to those who benigit from it. Today’s data shows that if Middle Class parents spent more time parenting than they do shopping, they might spend more time with their children assuring that they develop good habits instead of abandoned to the schemes of addict makers (whether legal ads on TV or illegal ads through the high school social scene) we may suffer less need for Narcan in an emergency and would, in fact, be dealing as parents and teachers far better with the upbringing of our children than parental absenteeism, now abandoning kids to boredom and loneliness after school in isolated suburban homes. We forget that spending all day Saturday at the Mall to pick a new dress for the adults’ Party that night is not made up for by taking the kids routinely to church and religious school on Sunday. We now know that most school teachers are NOT masters of social maturity so it is hard to expect the. To replace patents in the social education of our children. Hence interference with the practice and responsibility of medicine to coverup the incompetence and irresponsibility of modern parenting is a failed solution that only fills prisons with our kids as we try not to allow parenthood with our consumerism and social climbing.
    • Michelle
      Fantastic, spot on comment. Accurate insight into ongoing social problems that are not going to be resolved until the fall of this empire I think! Too much greed.