Although it’s common, drug addiction (also called substance use disorder or SUD) remains largely misunderstood. People who live with it often get judged as weak, lazy, or selfish.
If your family member or friend has an addiction, it’s important to learn how the disease actually works. To better understand what your loved one is going through, you must learn the science of addiction, have open conversations, and seek outside support.
Learn The Science Of Addiction
When someone you love struggles with addiction, you may wonder exactly what addiction is, why it occurs, and how it’s treated.
What Is Addiction?
Addiction is a brain disease that changes your brain’s reward system (also called the reward circuit). In particular, it affects how your brain processes dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) associated with reward and pleasure.
When you use an addictive drug, your brain gets flooded with dopamine. The resulting feelings of pleasure motivate you to keep using the drug.
Over time, your brain adapts to the increased dopamine. You’ll then need larger or more frequent doses of the drug to feel pleasure. This is called building a tolerance. It’s why an addicted person’s drug abuse gets more intense with time.
As your brain starts relying on large amounts of drugs to feel good, you’ll lose interest in healthy sources of pleasure, such as eating your favorite foods and spending time with loved ones. In addition, if you stop using drugs, you may experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, seizures, and intense drug cravings.
These effects make it extremely difficult to stop using drugs, even when your drug use has negative consequences such as damaged relationships, job loss, and legal problems.
Why Does Addiction Occur?
Drug addiction likely starts with drug abuse. Drug abuse occurs when you use a drug in a manner not recommended by your healthcare provider. For example, you might use an illegal drug, use a prescription drug without a prescription, or drink excessive amounts of alcohol.
Your loved one may have started abusing drugs for a variety of reasons. The most common risk factors for drug abuse and addiction include:
- mental health conditions, such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, or bipolar disorder
- emotional concerns, such as stress, grief, or loneliness
- peer pressure
- early exposure to drug use
How Is Addiction Treated?
As a chronic disease, addiction requires ongoing management. For most people, recovery starts at an addiction treatment program. These programs offer services like:
- medical detox, which helps people stop using drugs with minimal withdrawal symptoms
- cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people cope with cravings and any underlying mental disorders or stressors that contributed to their addiction
- medication-assisted treatment, which helps people reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms
- support groups, which helps people feel less alone and build a healthy, sober support system
After completing a treatment program, some people relapse (start using drugs again). While it can be scary, relapse is a normal part of recovery. It signals that the person should talk to their doctor about modifying their treatment plan.
Have Open Conversations
Each person has a unique experience of addiction. That means that no matter how much scientific research you read, you won’t fully understand your loved one’s condition until you talk to them about it.
However, you can take certain steps to make these conversations as productive as possible.
Speak With Compassion
Your loved one probably won’t open up to you if they sense any sort of stigma (judgment based on personal characteristics, including diseases).
You can keep your discussion stigma-free by reminding your loved one that addiction is a health condition and not a moral failing. You should also avoid stigmatizing language like “addict” or “junkie.”
You can also ask questions about your loved one’s experience, and listen without interrupting.
If possible, find out why your loved one first started using drugs. As mentioned above, many people turn to drugs to deal with issues like stress, mental illness, and peer pressure.
When you learn what triggered your loved one’s drug abuse, you’ll find it easier to see things from their perspective.
Seek Outside Support
To learn more about your loved one’s disease, consider talking to a therapist who specializes in addiction. Therapy can strengthen your understanding of the condition and give you the tools you need to resolve conflicts with your loved one.
You may also want to attend a support group for people with family or friends who have an addiction. Popular groups include:
If someone you love struggles with substance abuse, please contact Northeast Addictions Treatment Center. Our board-certified health care providers offer comprehensive care to help your loved one stay healthy and drug-free.
Harvard Health Publishing — When a loved one has an addiction
National Institute on Drug Abuse — Understanding Drug Use and Addiction DrugFacts
United States National Library of Medicine — Drug Use and Addiction