What is Drug Addiction?

Drug Addiction is defined as regular or chronic drug use that significantly interferes with daily life. Drug addiction is a disease in which there are compulsive behaviours involved with using drugs, including taking drugs even if the user knows it’s hurting them, not fulfilling their needs, or causing other problems in their lives. The vast majority of people who become addicted to drugs started out abusing substances to get relief from various psychological damages like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Drug Addiction Vs Abuse

There is a big difference between drug abuse and addiction. A person may abuse drugs or alcohol without becoming addicted to them. Abuse of psychoactive substances involves the continued use of drugs even if it causes harmful consequences. When drug abuse turns into drug addiction, there is a significant shift in behaviour towards compulsive drug use with little regard for the negative effects of drugs.

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What happens to the brain of a drug addict?

When drugs enter the body, they produce brief and intense feelings of pleasure and well-being. Consequently, drug abuse can quickly lead to addiction. Brain receptors underlie these feelings of pleasure and changes in the brain due to drug abuse offer one explanation for why it is difficult for addicts to quit.

Drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines affect the chemical dopamine that is involved in regulating feelings of pleasure and pain. The levels of dopamine increase when a person takes drugs which can make them feel high and therefore pleasurable.

How does someone become addicted to drugs?

There are many reasons a person might become addicted to drugs. Drug addiction can develop from a variety of causes, although addictive personality traits and a vulnerability to drug cravings are more common. There are a number of risk factors that predict who will become addicted. These include:

Inherited Biological Factors: Some people have a genetic predisposition that makes them more likely to become addicted to drugs. While it remains unclear as to whether addiction is a nature vs nurture argument, it appears that both generic and environmental factors play a part in substance dependence.

Environmental and Psychosocial Factors: Various aspects of a person’s environment can make them vulnerable to drug addiction, such as stressful living situations, childhood traumas and parental influences. A child growing up in an environment of addiction is more likely to develop addictive personality traits.

Drug abuse: When a person takes drugs on a regular basis, tolerance can develop. This means that more and more of the drug is needed to produce the ‘high’. As a person develops drug tolerance, they are more likely to become dependent on the drug and therefore abusive of the drug.

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Can drug addiction be cured or prevented?

Drug addiction cannot be cured but it can be treated and managed. Brain-imaging studies show that the brains of recovered addicts no longer respond to drug cues in the same way as before and, as a result, they are able to resist relapsing.

The most effective course of action is prevention – stopping people from becoming addicted in the first place – and this can be done by raising awareness of substance abuse and by providing drug education at school.

Who is more likely to become addicted to drugs?

Drug addiction can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what sex you are or what race you belong to. However, there is a higher risk of drug addiction in certain groups of people:

Young men who use drugs regularly are more likely to become addicted.

People who abuse alcohol or cannabis regularly are more likely to become addicted to other drugs like amphetamines and heroin. This is known as cross-addiction.

People living in deprived, inner city areas are more likely to be involved in substance abuse and therefore at risk of becoming addicted to substances.


Common Drug Addictions:

Alcohol Addiction

There has been a lot of research into the link between alcohol and addiction. Alcohol is capable of creating physical dependence, as can drugs like benzodiazepines and barbiturates. These drugs create an addiction that is both physical and psychological in nature. Alcohol abuse can lead to addiction; those who become addicted to alcohol may experience both physical and psychological symptoms before they realise they need help to quit drinking.

Heroin Addiction

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug, which is made up of morphine. Heroin is derived from the poppy plant that grows in war-torn regions of the world. Heroin, in turn, is synthesised from morphine which is produced by certain types of poppy plants.

Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant. It is an illegal street drug that comes in the form of a white powder, which is often added to other substances like crack, heroin, cannabis and ecstasy. Cocaine use can cause significant damage to the body’s cardiovascular system.

Crack Addiction

Crack is a form of cocaine that has been dissolved in a toxic solvent, also known as petrol or kerosene. When crack is smoked, the drug reaches the brain faster than other forms of cocaine. Smoking crack causes a massive release of dopamine which can lead to craving and addiction for this substance.

Cannabis Addiction

Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. Cannabis is usually smoked but can also be eaten after preparation, vaporised or even drunk as an alcoholic drink. There are many different types of cannabis which include skunk, weed, hash and resin.

Hallucinogen Addiction

Hallucinogens are drugs that cause changes in perceptions, mood and thought. Real hallucinations occur in the mind of the user but not in the external world. A hallucinogen addiction causes dependence on the drug, which can eventually lead to psychological problems.

Amphetamine Addiction

Amphetamine is a man-made compound that is used to treat obesity, attention deficit disorder and narcolepsy. The drug is also very addictive and can lead to both physical and psychological addiction. The high that an amphetamine addict gets from the drug can cause them to abuse the substance. Amphetamine causes changes in the brain which causes addiction.

Inhalant Addiction

Inhalants are often used to get high quickly. Recreational inhalant use is most common among teenagers, particularly adolescents aged between 12 and 17 years old. Inhalant addiction causes many problems, including liver and heart damage, as well as brain damage.

Prescription Drugs Addiction (Opiates, Benzodiazepines, Stimulants)

Prescription drugs are not illegal in the UK, they can be prescribed legally by a GP. Many people turn to prescription drugs when they are addicted to other substances. This is why many prescription drug addicts have a history of using other drugs, or being dependent on alcohol or cocaine. Prescription drug addiction can also cause physical dependence, with the user finding it difficult to stop taking the medication.

Sign & Symptoms of Drug Addiction:

Symptoms of a drug use vary depending on the drug that is being abused. For example, symptoms of heroin use are different to symptoms of cocaine use, even though both drugs are highly addictive. However, the signs & symptoms of addiction are the same for all substances and addictive behaviours.

  • An inability to stop despite negative consequences
  • Changes in priorities or perceived priorities (i.e. family)
  • Withdrawal symptoms or psychological disturbances when trying to quit (often anger or guilt)

The following signs and symptoms of drug addiction are not necessarily true for everyone, but are common:

  • Hiding or concealing usage, denial.
  • Inability to perform at work
  • Debt or financial problems
  • Poly-substance use – using more than one drug or replacing one drug with another (including alcohol).

Emotional Symptoms:

Feelings of depression, anxiety and hopelessness that lead to an increased level of unease and substance misuse. Substances change the neurotransmitters in the brain (such as Dopamine and Serotonin) which impact mood and pleasure.


The user may become suspicious and paranoid when they become addicted to the drug. They may also start to think there is a conspiracy against them or act suspiciously around the police.

Behavioural Symptoms:

This is when the user’s drug use starts to cause problems in their life. This can include neglecting work, financial problems, relationships with family members or friends, or neglecting children. These symptoms can lead to social exclusion and lead to prison sentences for some users.

This is when the user’s drug use starts to cause problems in their life.

Physical Symptoms:

Physical symptoms of a drug addiction include poor eyesight, sleeping problems, weight loss or weight gain, difficulty standing up and dizziness. In many cases the user will be dealing with multiple side effects from their drug(s) of choice.

External signs of drug abuse can usually be observed by friends and family, such as red eye (cannabis), heightened excitement and pupil dilation (stimulants like cocaine) or slurred speech and zombie-like states (benzodiazepines and alcohol). Depending on the substance and how it is administered, physical marks, cuts or bruises may also be present (if injected).

The Dangers Associated with Drug Addiction

There are many physical dangers associated with drug use, including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis and many more. However, there are also psychological risks to be aware of.

High levels of stress can cause feelings of anxiety and depression in some users. As well as the risk of heart disease and stroke, drug usage can lead to brain damage in the long run. There is also a serious risk of overdose when abusing certain drugs such as heroin or cocaine.

How drug addiction changes the brain:

Every drug has a particular way in which it changes the brain to cause addiction. For example, cocaine causes a specific change in the neurons which release dopamine. When the brain produces too much dopamine, the receptors become insensitive and need more and more cocaine to produce the same high. This causes tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped. In any event, repeat exposure to any substance will cause changes in the brain’s reward system.

The impact of drug use on mental health (dual diagnosis)

Drug use can lead to a deterioration of mental health, particularly in vulnerable people. If a person suffers from a psychiatric illness together with a drug addiction, it can cause serious problems. This is why it is very important to seek professional help if you are suffering from mental illness and suffering from drug addiction at the same time.

In addition, drug abuse also leads to difficulties which people normally face during the development of their personality. These problems include loss of interpersonal relationships, low self-esteem, low motivation and feelings of inferiority.

The impact of drug use on children

If a parent abuses drugs it can lead to serious problems for their children. For example, if they are neglected it can lead to permanent emotional problems for the child.

Another danger is that parents who abuse drugs may get involved in criminal activities which can also risk the life of their children, such as drug driving.

The impact of drug use on pregnant women

Pregnancy and drugs do not go together. If a pregnant woman abuses drugs, there can be serious consequences for the unborn baby. For example, if she uses Heroin she may suffer from miscarriage, premature birth and even death of the baby. Drugs like heroin pass the blood barriers between the mother and foetus, resulting in babies being born dependent on heroin.

The impact of drug use on relationships

Drug abuse can lead to changes in relationships between husband and wife, brother and sister, parents and their children. The addict of drugs may spend all their time on the streets engaging in criminal activities to get money for drugs. In this way, they neglect their family. As a result of this neglect, they may lose support from family and friends. Their relationships with children can be particularly damaged as the child may feel neglected by them and may feel inadequate as a result of this situation.

The impact of drug use on the NHS

Drug abuse can have a negative impact on the NHS. For example, drugs can increase the risk of HIV transmission. Also drug use may lead to other diseases, thereby increasing the burden of infectious diseases on health care services. Furthermore, drug addiction and abuse leads to worsened mental and physical health, which will have an additional burden on the NHS. Another factor to consider is the number of accidents associated with drug or alcohol use, which in turn increases demand on emergency services.

The dangers of mixing drugs and alcohol

When you mix alcohol with drugs, there are also a number of dangers. One common example is mixing alcohol with barbiturates which can lead to death or coma because these drugs are highly toxic in combination.

Mixing cocaine and alcohol can cause a number of serious problems because cocaine is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant. This combination can lead to anxiety, depression, seizures, increased body temperature and increased blood pressure. Cocaine and alcohol use can lead to alcohol poisoning because the effects of cocaine reduce feelings of drunkenness, allowing individuals to drink more.

In general, taking any drug together with alcohol can have serious health consequences because the two substances combined have a stronger effect on the body and brain than either drug alone. Furthermore, taking multiple drugs of the same class (i.e. stimulants) can lead to hypertension, extreme agitation or paranoia, and in serious cases, heart attacks and death.

Drug overdose

Drug overdose can be a consequence of drug abuse (both illicit and prescription based medicines). Users who take drugs in large doses or abuse prescription drugs beyond their recommended dosage is dangerous.

The most common symptoms of an overdose are:

  • Inability to talk or respond properly.
  • Inability to stand or sit up straight. This is because the body starts going into shock from the excessive amount of drugs.
  • Slow and weak pulse, breathing and heart rate.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Sudden collapse.
  • Confusion or disorientation.
  • Loss of consciousness.

Drug overdose can also result from individuals attempted to quit, but returning to drug use after a short period of time due to withdrawal symptoms. During withdrawal, tolerance levels begin to fall and individuals return to the original dose they were using. Because the body is not used to the original dose prior to withdrawal, the body becomes overwhelmed and overdose occurs.

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Getting Help for Drug Addiction

The decision to quit drugs is very difficult for many people, but if you are serious about overcoming your addiction, there are lots of things you can do to make life easier.

Using available therapy options is the best way to combat addiction. They include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy – people learn how their thoughts and behaviours lead to destructive temptations. They are taught how these situations can be avoided in the future so they can live a happy life without drug abuse.
  • Dialectical behaviour therapy – people learn how to manage their emotions and improve their relationships with other people. This form of therapy is good for those with dual diagnosis (addiction & mental health problems).
  • Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – this therapy teaches people how to deal with stress in a more constructive way.
  • Contingency Management – this is a type of behavioural therapy that involves having people set goals and then creating rewards for the person when they reach these goals.

These various modes of drug addiction therapy can be done either privately (drug rehab), or via an outpatient service such as with a counsellor, or via an NHS service within your local area.

Residential Drug Rehab

Residential drug rehab involves staying in a treatment centre for a number of weeks. This option is ideal because it takes the individual away from the triggers at home, and allows them to focus on their recovery in a secure facility.

During treatment, individuals will follow a drug rehab programme and receive individual counselling and treatment from a team of professionals, and will learn how to deal with triggers in their lives. For example, triggers for cravings may be identified, and replaced by new coping mechanisms or ways of thinking.

In addition, the staff at residential drug rehab will also help clients develop positive coping skills for everyday life. These involve coming up with a strategy which can be used when a craving occurs. One method is known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Most drug rehab centres in the UK also provide detox as part of a treatment programme. In some cases, individuals may require medication to help ease symptoms of withdrawal.

Outpatient Drug Addiction Treatment (NHS & Free Services)

Outpatient drug rehab involves individuals attending a service for treatment of their addiction. This is ideal because it allows people to attend multiple times each week, and gives them access to professionals who can help them overcome their addiction without committing to residential rehab.

Outpatient drug rehab is usually run by the NHS, and is also known as voluntary or community rehabilitation. Some of these services are aimed at recovering addicts with mild or moderate drug use issues, whilst others target those with more serious addiction issues.

Most free addiction treatment services in the UK do not require a referral. You can contact your local service via the NHS directory service, or speak to a GP about your concerns with drug use.

The NHS however, does not provide residential rehab programmes, and waiting lists for these services may differ from area to area. One of the major downsides to outpatient services is continual access to substances and triggers. Residential drug rehab programmes offer many benefits over outpatient services, with 24/7 access to medical care, a structured daily therapy programme, trained addiction specialists and support for families.

Drug Detox

Individuals also have the option of a detox only service, this can be achieved within a drug detox facility privately or via a GP who may prescribe detox medication. In some cases, the NHS may provide a medically-assisted detox for those with severe alcohol or drug dependencies.

A detox only method will help individuals safely withdraw from drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or opiates, but a detox only treatment will not treat the underlying causes of addiction. Therapy is strongly recommended in conjunction with detox.

Support Groups (12 Step Programmes such as NA, CA, AA)

Many people who seek treatment for drug addiction find that support groups such as:

  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA),
  • Cocaine Anonymous (CA)
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Many people recovering from addiction will attend meetings regularly and return to the meetings if they fall back into old habits, while others remain active indefinitely. Support groups are strongly recommend regardless of an individuals choice of primary treatment (Inpatient or Outpatient), because they encourage accountability, support for one another, reduce loneliness and provide a structured framework (12 Steps) to live by.


Get Help with Drug Addiction today!

The Providence Projects has been treating people with drug addiction for 25 years. The success of our drug rehab programme is down to our highly trained and experienced addiction counsellors and other services we offer.

If you are concerned about you or a loved ones drug use, speak to one of our addiction counsellors today for free advice.

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