Few people use recreational drugs without experiencing any negative implications, while for many others, drug abuse can cause trouble at home, work, school or in a relationship. Various national surveys in Australia have suggested that almost a third of young people in this country have tried a banned substance.

There are various reasons as to why people try drugs. It could be peer pressure, to have a good time, out of curiosity, to enhance performance or to ease stress or anxiety.

While drug use may not necessarily lead to drug abuse, there is not a specifically defined demarcating line across which drug use becomes problematic. Drug abuse or drug addiction has more to do with the repercussions of drug use rather than how much of a substance is being consumed.

Research has provided evidence that drugs not only disrupt normal function of the brain by creating extreme feelings of ease and indulgence, but they have long-standing effects on brain function. Eventually, changes happening in the brain turn the drug abuse into an addiction, which narrows down to a point where it becomes imperative to get treatment to end this obsessive behaviour.

What is addiction to drugs?

Drug addiction is a condition when a person takes drugs to get feelings of pleasure and ease and with continued use the addiction becomes obsessive and hampers daily life routine and relationships.

The drug user may not be conscious of how his behaviour affects himself and others around him. This addiction could be in the form of physical dependence on recreational drugs or in response to emotional stress.

Causes of drug addiction

There aren’t any specific causes of drug addictions but there are numerous risk factors that can increase the likelihood of dependency on a drug. These include:

  • Depression or stress
  • Other mental disorders like bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Peer pressure
  • Ease of access to drugs
  • Low self-esteem
  • Trauma or neglect experienced during childhood

How does drug addiction affect the brain?

Drug addiction is a disorder that involves compulsive or habitual use of drugs. Different drugs have different physical effects on the addict but what they all have in common is how they negatively affect normal brain functioning.

Use of recreational drugs causes a spike in the dopamine levels in the brain, triggering feelings of euphoria and pleasure. The brain gets used to these feelings and wants them to be repeated.

Once addiction has set in, using the drug becomes as essential as activities like drinking, sleeping and eating. These changes in the brain impair the ability to think properly, control behaviour, judge things and feel relaxed without having to resort to using the drug. The user eventually loses all inhibitions and acts on impulses that the brain would usually have stopped.

Signs and symptoms of drug addiction

Some of the symptoms of drug addiction include:

  • More and more of the drug is needed to experience the desire defect i.e. tolerance develops.
  • Any attempt to stop using the drug leads to symptoms of withdrawal like nausea, sweating, irritability, insomnia, depression, shaking etc.
  • Loss of control over drug use; the person may want to stop using drugs but feels incapable of doing so.
  • A lot of time is spent thinking about using drugs, how to get them and recuperating from the drug’s effects
  • Continued use of the drug hampers daily activities, social life, work and relationships. Activities that were previously enjoyed are abandoned.
  • Drug use is causing health and mood problems like confusion, depression, aggression, mood swings, passing out frequently, violent episodes and paranoia. Despite this the addict continues to use.

Frequently abused drugs

Use of illicit drugs has increased in Australia, primarily of cannabis, which is the most widely abused drug in the country. Other commonly used drugs include:

  • Depressants like Valium, Xanax. These drugs reduce anxiety and can cause dependence.
  • Stimulants that include amphetamines, crystal meth (methamphetamine), cocaine, ecstasy. They stimulate the nervous system and can lead to tolerance.
  • Inhalants (glue, vapor).
  • Hallucinogens like LSD cause people to hallucinate and become psychologically dependent.
  • Heroin (causes drowsiness and sometimes leads to euphoric feelings).

Treatment for drug addiction

The stepping-stone in the drug treatment process is recognising that this is a problem and it needs to be dealt with. No matter how impossible being sober may seem, recovery from drug addiction is always within reach. With the correct treatment, support and certain changes in life, you can be on the road to recovery.

Drug treatment is a step by step process starting with

Deciding to make some change in life.

This is the toughest part of the recovery process because a lot of changes have to be made in how to deal with stress, what activities to indulge in, what to do in free time. This step can be eased by thinking of the pros and cons of getting sober and asking how the addiction has affected those around you.

Looking at different options for treatment.

Depending on your condition, there are different treatments available like rehab, “detoxification” programs, counsellors, and psychologists. When looking at different options it has to be kept in mind that everybody needs treatment according to their specific situation and needs. The treatment should not just address the drug abuse problem but should tackle the root psychological or physiological cause of drug addiction (combine treatments). Follow-up to the treatment is also very essential.

Having a support system.

Having a strong support system of family and friends is very important. It is also important to be around sober people and join a support group such as NA (narcotics anonymous) for recovering addicts and regularly attending their meetings.

Learning to manage stress in a healthy manner.

Many people use drugs to cope up with their stress. However, there are healthier ways of dealing with  stress like meditation, yoga, exercise, listening to soothing music and various other relaxation techniques.

Keeping cravings under control and avoiding triggers.

Once you are sober the brain will take its time to recover and come back to the way it was before the addiction. During this time a lot of effort has to be put in to avoid places, people or circumstance that can trigger cravings to use the drug. This can be done by avoiding bars and clubs, not hanging out with friends who still use drugs and avoid using prescription medicines especially anti-depressants and painkillers.

Add some meaning to your life.

Take part in activities and develop interests that you enjoy and fill you with a sense of well-being. Give your life a purpose by indulging in a new hobby, doing community service, setting goals, getting a pet and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The more you feel good about yourself, lesser will be the temptation of drugs.

Don’t get discouraged by a relapse.

Relapse is a part of the process of recovering and should not be considered as a failure. If relapse does occur, get back on track as soon as possible and talk to your sponsor, therapist or attend a meeting. Once you are drug free again, analyse as to what was the mistake and how it can be avoided in the future.

Are you or someone you know suffering from a drug addiction? Australia Counselling has a range of drug counsellors and drug treatment psychologists who are able to help you. Visit our Addictions -Including Substances page to find a counsellor or psychologist in your local area.