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There are two basic forms that addiction takes. A person may either abuse drugs and alcohol, or he or she may become dependent on these substances for their everyday functioning. Either type of addiction will cause massive disruption to a person’s daily life.

Regardless of the type of addiction (or substance) at hand, addiction is an incredibly scary condition that many people encounter at one point or other in their lives. For these reasons, it is essential to highlight both the possible symptoms of, and treatments for, addiction.

Identifying Substance Abuse

“Addiction” is not the most accurate descriptor for substance abusive and dependent behaviors. Dr. Steven Shoptaw, who works at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, explains that addictive behaviors fall into either one of two categories: “substance abuse” or “substance dependence.” In order to qualify as someone who abuses a substance, a patient must engage in a repetitive form of substance use and meet one of the following criteria over the course of a year:

  • Shirking responsibility. A person who is abusing a substance will have difficulty being held accountable at work, at home or otherwise.
  • Consuming substances in highly dangerous / risky situations.
  • Encounters trouble with the law for substance-related reasons, including: DUI citations or drug charges.
  • Persists in using substances regardless of the harm it causes to his or her social life.

Coupled with the aforementioned criteria, a substance abuser will also undergo what is termed “clinical distress” because of these criteria. In other words, he or she will have difficulty not engaging in one or more of the above behaviors in a chronic fashion.

Identifying Substance Dependence

Within the spectrum of addictive behaviors, substance dependence is the most severe form that addiction will take. In order to be considered someone who is substance-dependent, a person will need to engage in three of the seven following addictive behaviors:

  • Increased tolerance for the substance being abused. Because an addict consumes such high amounts of a substance, he or she will need to consume increasing amounts in order to achieve a similar effect.
  • Physical symptoms of withdrawal. Persons who are substance-dependent will often endure extreme physical stress when they make the decision to stop using a particular substance.
  • Extended periods of use. A person who is dependent on a particular substance may very well take this substance for much longer periods than they had originally anticipated or intended.
  • Difficulty stopping. Many people who are dependent on a particular substance will be virtually unable to diminish the amount that they consume, or to stop consuming the substance altogether.
  • Wasted time. When a person is dependent on a particular drug, drug use will often eclipse every other aspect of their life—leaving time for nothing else.
  • Being unable to show up and perform at work and/or failing to remember other engagements.
  • Lack of regard for the consequences of abusing a substance. Even when a particular substance is causing a person physical pain, if he or she is substance-dependent they will continue abuse this substance anyway.

Addiction’s Effect on Our Brains

As common sense suggests, a person’s brain is significantly impacted by a misuse (or abuse) of alcohol and / or drugs. One possible effect that substance abuse has is a dulling of our dopamine transmitters: transmitters which act to deliver feelings of joy and pleasure to the brain. Accordingly, substance abusers often feel quite down and depressed when they stop using their particular drug of choice. Another area of the brain that may be affected by drug abuse is the hippocampal region. When affected by drugs or alcohol, this area of the brain is much less able to elicit our short term memories.

The Necessity for Treating Addiction

It is important to bear in mind that drug and alcohol dependence are lifelong disorders that need to be treated as such. Nevertheless, Dr. Shoptaw explains that these chronic disorders can be effectively managed by an appropriate treatment program. Perhaps the most well-known treatment programs are twelve-step programs that focus on overhauling a person’s entire relationship with themselves and their addiction.

Several other treatment programs include:

  • Behavioral therapy that focuses on addiction from a cognitive standpoint. This kind of therapy allows patients to better understand their reliance on alcohol or drugs, and also provides them with healthy coping strategies.
  • Certain medications. Revia and Suboxone are used to create a blockage in front of receptors in the brain. When ingested, these drugs disallow an individual from becoming either high or intoxicated when they ingest drugs or alcohol.
  • Intervention on behalf of friends and family. Dr. Shoptaw expressed a certain level of skepticism about this kind of treatment, or rather, forced initiation of treatment.

Addiction is a tragic and debilitating condition that affects far too many people. However it is important to know that you and your loved ones are not powerless to deal with either substance abuse or substance dependence. Speaking with a medical professional is the first and invaluable step on your road to recovery, and will help tremendously in putting a treatment plan in place.

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