June 30, 2016

Substance Abuse: The Catalyst for Drug Addiction


In part three of this seven-part series on addiction, we dive into the world of substance abuse by exploring the science behind it. We also go deep to uncover the root causes and provide you with some safe ways to deal with substance addictions.



When the topic of addiction comes up, what's the first thought that comes to your mind? For most people, they think substance abuse like drug and alcohol addiction. Why? A big reason for this is due to the widespread so-called “chemical” addictions. But, in reality, all addictions are chemical, on some level, since they affect the very chemistry of our brain.

Drugs, tobacco, and alcohol all have the added chemistry of the substance itself, which makes its effects on us all the more potent. This doesn't mean, though, that these types of addictions are the only ones worth discussing or addressing. Our health and well-being are precious aspects of our life. And, while addictions aren't limited to substance abuse they are certainly damaging towards these. Which is what we'll explore more of in this edition.

To begin with, let's take a look at the science behind substance abuse.

The Science

As alcohol and drug treatment organization RecoveryGateway explains in their article 'Effects of Drug Abuse and Addiction';
The “high” we get from drugs and alcohol happens when these substances target the brain's reward system, often directly, by flooding the brain with dopamine.
Dopamine, the compound, commonly known as the 'pleasure chemical' due to the way it makes us feel happy and content when released, affects our emotions, movement, and cognition.

David DiSalvo, in his article 'What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain', informs us of the powerful effects drugs can have on us. He states that substances such as alcohol, for example, are very effective at increasing the release of dopamine in the brain. A good reason why consuming alcohol is associated with being pleasurable. When these chemical changes take place in our brain, sometimes they're temporary and sometimes—they're permanent.

The way drugs enter the body also plays a part in its effect. For instance, substances injected directly into the bloodstream impact our bodies much more quickly than a chemical that is ingested. Even though it has to pass through our digestive system before affecting us. And these things don't only affect our brains.

How Drugs Affect You

Because they are actual chemicals that enter our body, they often interfere with our internal organs. Alcohol damages the liver and can cause risk of mouth cancer. Smoking tobacco causes lung cancer. Marijuana damages the immune system. Meth, if used long enough, causes heart attacks.

Again, this is why we often hear more about substance abuse addictions than others, even though other addictions may be very common and unhealthy or dangerous in their own right.
Substance abuse holds a quality that few other addictions can rival—the ability to mentally, emotionally, and physically change us by eliciting some of the most extreme “highs" we can achieve.

The Root Problem

If we hear so much about these practices and their dangers, why then do so many millions of people engage in this behavior?

In his book The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure: A Holistic Approach to Total Recovery, Chris Prentiss explains that "at the bottom of every person's dependency, there is always pain. Discovering the pain and healing it is an essential step in ending dependency."
Chris also tells us that, "If you examine your motive for doing anything, you'll soon discover that your reason is that you believe it will make you happy." This begs the question; if you have substance abuse issues, what—about using the substances—do you believe makes you happy?

In the first article in this series, I mentioned a TEDx Talk by Zoe Chance which delves into a framework by Tony Robbins to explore what he says are the "six human needs." They are significance, certainty, security, uncertainty, connection, and growth.

Zoe explained that if something meets at least three of these needs, it's very likely to become an addiction. How does alcohol use, for instance, hold up under this idea? Well, let's briefly take a look at each of the six needs.

Substance Abuse and the Six Human Needs

First, significance. Merriam-Webster defines significance as "the quality of being important: the quality of having notable worth or influence." At first glance, alcohol doesn't seem to provide its drinker with significance, but a little reflection reveals the truth. How many young people start drinking alcohol because they believe it is a status symbol? You know how it goes. The "cool kids" drink. If you want to be "cool," you should too!

What about certainty? That's a little more straightforward. There's a certainty that when you drink, you will get that “high,” that majestic transcendence that carries you away from your problems, even though you eventually have to drink more and more to get the same effect.

Security? There's a certain safety with knowing there's something in your life that won't fail you. That you can turn to, to "fix" things, even though eventually it will become a much bigger problem than anything you're trying to escape.

What about uncertainty, then? Interestingly, alcohol provides that too. You never know what you'll do under the influence, and that spark can add spice to life, even though that "spice" can become extremely dangerous.

Connection? There's a reason that asking someone out for a drink is a popular first date. There's a reason that coworkers and friends like to hit up happy hour together. Not only is it a social activity, but a drink or two can loosen people up, help 'break the ice', and bring down walls to allow a seemingly deeper connection between them.

Finally, how about growth? Merriam-Webster poses the idea of "progressive development." In an odd way, alcohol use satisfies this—especially when it becomes a full-fledged addiction.

Control it, before it Controls You

Remember, addiction, by definition, progresses and develops into something more extreme as time goes by. It changes and develops and builds, in a twisted way mimicking the growth we all long for in our lives.

No wonder substances such as alcohol are such strong candidates for major addiction. Replace "alcohol" with the name of any other drug, and you'd find the same applications. Why do we get hooked? Because we're trying to fill these natural desires with something that's an easy fix—but not a true solution.

It's Complicated

Can substance addictions be broken? They can and often are. Substance abuse addictions, however, are much more complicated to break than other addictions. Mainly in part due to the aggressive physical component. Our bodies adapt to what we feed them. A sudden removal of something we've grown to need, to feel normal, is miserable at best and physically dangerous at worst.

Trying to quit "cold turkey" can bring about uncomfortable and severe withdrawal symptoms. Suddenly quitting an addiction can lead to sleep deprivation, nausea, vomiting, depression, weight loss, hallucinations, trembling, and seizures. The problem with this is, your body is trained to need this substance. So as a result, your body won't let go without a fight.

But there is hope. Use symptoms as a sign of temporary payment for a lifetime of peace and healthy living, if not too severe. If the addiction is severe enough that quitting may cause danger, there are facilities and physicians who specialize in helping patients work safely and thoroughly through the withdrawal process. A quick Google search should reveal several options in your area.

You Can Make Changes

Mormon, author, and Elder Neal A. Maxwell, once wrote;
"Never give up what you want most for what you want today."
This simple yet enlightening statement stands as a reminder when times are tough and all we want is to return to what has comforted us in the past to ask ourselves—"what do I really want?"

What do you really want?

Do you want the temporary and dangerous relief that drugs bring? Or, do you want the lasting freedom of sobriety and healthy living? It's not an easy choice, but it's a choice that affects every area of your life and those around you. What will you choose?


Other articles in this 7-part series:

  1. What is an Addiction and Addiction Formation
  2. Stages of Addiction: Are You Addicted?
  3. (This article)
  4. Sexual Addictions: The Science and Psychology
  5. Food Addictions: It's Not Just About Food
  6. Entertainment Addiction: Are We Escaping Reality?
  7. Breaking an Addiction: How to Set Yourself Free