Drug addiction is a widely misunderstood disease. Many people don’t know how or why people become addicted to drugs, and there are lots of damaging misconceptions about drug addiction being the result of a lack of willpower or moral values. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease.
Drugs affect the brain’s reward system. They create a surge of dopamine, which causes a sense of euphoria and reinforces drug taking.
If the brain’s reward system was functioning properly an individual would get this positive reinforcement from doing things that are necessary to survive and thrive, such as eating, drinking, and spending time with family and friends.
Repeated drug use changes this reward system; an individual starts to need more and more of the drug to get the same sense of euphoria they had the first time they took it, and they are no longer able to get the same pleasure from other things they used to enjoy. This is known as tolerance.
When someone is addicted to drugs they take them despite the negative and harmful consequences because their brain’s reward system is reinforcing the behaviour.
When we understand and acknowledge that addiction occurs because of a change in brain function, we are able to treat addiction more effectively. Treatment should involve medications and behavioural treatment to alter the affected brain processes.
That said there are important social components that play a role too. A person’s environment and genes can influence whether or not they will use and become addicted to drugs.
If you are struggling with drug abuse or addiction you are not alone - around 31 million people worldwide suffer from drug use disorders.
Drug addiction is a treatable disease, and just recognising that you have a problem and deciding to make a change is an important step towards recovery.
How do I get help for drug addiction?
As we’ve mentioned, the first step to recovery is to recognise you have a problem. Seeking help can be scary, and it’s normal to feel unsure and conflicted about whether or not you’re ready to make a change.
You don’t have to overcome drug addiction alone. You can ask your friends and family for support, and reach out to your doctor and other resources that might be available in your country.
Below is a list of country specific resources:
- Narcotics anonymous
- Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator
- Call the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-4357
- Narcotics anonymous UK
- NHS drug addiction support services
- Call the Talk to Frank helpline on 0300 1236600.
- The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction can provide information about addiction treatment helplines in your area
- Visit the Alcohol and Drug Foundation for a list of help and support services available
Recovery from drug addiction is not always linear. More often than not, relapse is part of the recovery journey. Don’t be discouraged if this is the case for you, it doesn’t mean you have failed. Reach out to your support networks, and try and identify what led to your relapse.
You might also find it useful to:
- Remember why you decided to change
- Try and identify what worked and what didn’t (if you’ve tried to recover before)
- Set specific goals, such as how many recovery meetings you will attend a week
- Remove reminders or triggers of your addiction from your life
- Ask your friends and family for support
What drug treatment involves
The changes that occur in the brain of someone who suffers from addiction are long-lasting, so addiction must be treated as a chronic (long-term) illness rather than an acute (short-term) illness.
This means instead of seeking to cure addiction, the aim should be to treat it, and relapses should not be viewed as a failure, but instead a setback. In fact, research has shown that people who suffer from drug addiction experience relapses at a similar rate to someone who suffers from asthma or hypertension.
Like most chronic illness, addiction can be successfully managed with the right treatment plan. Since drug addiction is such a complex disease, a combination of treatments and an individualised treatment plan is usually necessary for the best results.
Often, medications which help individuals stay off drugs are used in combination with behavioural therapies for effective and continued recovery.
Treatment may include:
- Talking therapies
- Reducing harm
Drug treatment with medication
Medication can be used to help you manage withdrawal symptoms, prevent relapses, and to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety that may occur alongside addiction.
Medications can be used to help with withdrawal symptoms when you are detoxing from drugs, and they can also be used to decrease cravings and restore normal brain function.
Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine can treat opioid addiction, and can be used during the detoxification process to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Medications can also be used to treat co-occurring conditions and reduce harm from diseases associated with drug addiction.
You should always speak to a pharmacist or doctor for guidance before taking any of these medications.
Drug treatment with behavioural therapy
Behavioural therapies can help you understand how your thoughts and feelings are influencing your behaviour related to drug use. Behavioural therapy sessions can take place in a residential treatment facility or you can attend as an outpatient.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches you to identify and change negative behaviour patterns. This is done by looking at the pros and cons of drug use, learning how to identify difficult situations which might lead to drug use, how to anticipate cravings, and developing positive mechanisms to deal with cravings and high-risk situations.
Contingency management uses positive reinforcement to encourage abstinence from drugs. It can be based on a voucher or monetary system, and it involves you receiving a voucher or money for every clean urine sample. The more consecutive drug-free urine samples provided, the higher the monetary value.
The Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA) Plus Vouchers is the reinforcement of a drug-free lifestyle with different recreational, familial, social, vocational, and material incentives over a period of 24 weeks. You will go to therapy sessions to learn skills to help reduce drug use, and you will also receive incentives for negative urine samples.
Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) is a type of counselling which aims to encourage you to engage in treatment and stop taking drugs. The therapist uses motivational interviewing principles to motivate you and help you create an action plan. They will also help you to develop coping strategies for high-risk situations.
The Matrix Model aims to teach you about the central issues of addiction and relapse, and provide support from a trained therapist. This therapist will develop a positive relationship with you and they will try and encourage behavioural change by improving your self-esteem, and sense of dignity and self-worth. Therapy will involve relapse prevention, family and group therapies, drug education, and self-help participation, and drug use will be monitored with urine testing.
Twelve-step facilitation therapy is an abstinence-promoting self-help group. It asks you to accept your addiction and acknowledge abstinence as the only option. In following the twelve-step programme, you will take an active involvement in 12-step meetings and related activities.
Asking for help for drug addiction can be challenging. But remember, by just acknowledging that you have a problem, you have already made an important first step in your recovery.
You are not alone in your recovery journey, reach out to friends and family and let them know your commitment to recovery and ask for their support.
Seeking help is hard, but treatment can work. As with other chronic illnesses, people are managing their addiction everyday, and by getting help you can begin to regain control of your health - and life.