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Addicted to drugs: How can medication and therapy help?

Many people believe that saying ‘no’ to drugs is all it takes to get over an addiction. However, a person who is addicted needs a lot of treatment and support

What is drug addiction?

The terms drug addiction or drug abuse refer to a situation in which a person has an unhealthy tendency to consume a certain drug regularly, and is dependent on it to be able to function normally. If you use a drug habitually, you constantly crave for it, and think that you cannot live without it. Drug addiction can cause serious emotional, physical and interpersonal problems. It may not be easy to overcome a drug addiction on your own, even if you really want to.

Most of us think of drugs as strong, mood-altering substances. Any chemical that makes changes to the way the human brain works can be called a drug. Drugs work by travelling to the brain and aping or dulling the natural chemicals that the brain produces. By this definition, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, prescription medication and recreational substances all qualify as drugs.

How does drug addiction occur?

As with alcohol, people first begin using drugs out of curiosity, peer pressure, a desire to excel in academics or athletics, or to forget their stresses and troubles. Gradually, the changes in the brain caused by the drug use make the person crave the drug and lose control over their intake. The person loses their willpower and ability to stop using the drug, even if they want to get rid of the habit.
Most people think that a person who is addicted to drugs is weak or lacks willpower. The common assumption is that they are too lazy to change their behaviour, and that they can overcome their addiction by simply saying ‘no’ to drugs. The truth is that addiction is as much a matter decided by genes and the environment, as it is by the individual’s choice. Saying ‘no’ is just a small part of quitting – he or she needs treatment and a lot of support in order to completely get over it.
Drugs can be consumed in a variety of ways: by smoking, snorting, injecting, chewing and drinking. The use of marijuana, inhalants, tobacco and over-the-counter medication feature most commonly among addiction cases in India. 

How do drugs affect the human brain?

The most noticeable effect of drugs on the human brain is the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. When you consume a drug, it replicates the effect caused by the brain’s messaging service. This leads to a release of dopamine, which the brain interprets as a feeling of pleasure. The brain wants this feeling to occur again, so it creates a craving for the drug. As you continue using the drug, the brain becomes less sensitive. This means you’ll have to take larger quantities of the drug to get the effect they had on your brain originally. In other words, taking the drug confuses the brain into thinking that it needs more of it, even though it offers no real benefit to the person.

Using the drug for a long period can also damage the cognitive functioning of the brain. Studies show that the parts of the brain that deal with learning, judgment, decision-making and behaviour control are affected in chronic drug users. In addition, the person becomes more vulnerable to depression and other mental health disorders.

Other problems caused by drug addiction include:

  • Tremors
  • Loss of appetite and sleep
  • Seizures
  • Fluctuation in weight
  • Social withdrawal
  • Nervousness or agitation
  • and paranoia

Identifying a drug addiction

There are some clues that can help you identify when your drug habit has turned into an addiction:

  • You observe that you’ve consumed more drugs than you originally intended to
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, shaking or irritability before you’ve had your first dose
  • You cannot imagine getting through your day without drugs
  • You find excuses to take your next dose
  • You feel that your everyday routine tasks are more pleasurable or tolerable if you take the drug before you begin
  • You are unable to focus on your family, friends, or responsibilities at home or work
  • You constantly feel like hiding your drug habit from others; you may deny that you have the habit, or understate the quantity you generally use
  • You feel guilty about your habit, or are ashamed of it
  • You think that you want to quit someday, but keep putting it off

If these statements relate to your experience of using drugs, it is recommended that you consult a mental health professional to learn how to overcome your drug addiction.

A modified version of the CAGE test can also be used to identify whether you are addicted to drugs:

  • Have you ever felt you ought to Cut down your drinking or drug use?
  • Have people Annoyedyou by criticizing your drinking or drug use?
  • Have you felt bad or Guilty about your drinking or drug use?
  • Have you ever had a drink or used drugs first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (Eye-opener)?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to two or more of these questions, then it is likely you have an addiction and need to seek help.

If you think that a loved one is addicted to a drug, check our list of physical and behavioral symptoms of addiction.

Diagnosing a drug addiction

There are several assessments that can help the medical professional diagnose addiction. If you think you or a loved one is addicted to drugs, you can seek the help of a psychiatrist or a counselor, who can assess the problem and refer you to a specialist. The specialist uses specific assessment tests to identify how severe the problem is, while also conducting a thorough clinical and physical examination to investigate any complications that may exist.

Treatment for drug addiction

The treatment for drug addiction involves four important goals:

  • Getting the toxins of the drug out of the patient’s body
  • Helping the patient handle cravings and withdrawal symptoms
  • Helping the patient handle any psychological and emotional issues connected with his addiction
  • Helping the patient devise a new lifestyle that does not focus around the drug habit

The treatment for drug addiction is similar to the treatment pursued for other addictions, involving a combination of medication, individual therapy and group therapy. Each aspect of the treatment program is created to suit the patient’s needs according to their medical history, type of drugs being used, and any complications that may exist. Treatment aims to equip the person with the coping skills that are required to stay away from the substance and avoid a relapse. Most patients need a short spell of in-patient treatment, after which rehabilitation and follow-up sessions help them cope with life after addiction.

Relapse prevention is a significant part of the treatment process. When the person first gets addicted to drugs, they are said to lapse. A relapse occurs after the person has been treated for addiction and has lived without the substance for a period of time. The ideal relapse prevention program is to hold an intervention during initial treatment, to help the patient tackle potential relapses.

Note: Many people believe that saying “no” to drugs is all it takes to get over an addiction. is not just a matter of willpower. When a person is addicted, the drug has made changes to the decision-making part of the brain, and saying “no” to the drug is practically impossible. They may say no, and the sheer terror of the cravings and withdrawal symptoms makes them use the drug again. This person needs more support in order to kick the habit. This is why effective treatment for drug addiction uses a combination of medication and therapy.