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Frequently Asked Questions About Addiction

Below you will find a list of common questions about addiction. If you have additional addiction questions, feel free to call one of our addiction specialists 866.812.8231.

What causes drug or alcohol addiction?

Addiction is the result of many factors that, when combined, distort normal physiological and psychological functioning. Drugs and alcohol alter the brain’s ability to produce neurotransmitters and send appropriate messages to the body. These neurotransmitters and other cellular communications are responsible for sending vital messages that affect the body’s pain centers, reward centers, feeling centers, and systems centers. When an individual uses substances, the body and the mind grow accustomed to the alteration caused by the drugs or alcohol. Once that happens, both the physical and emotional health of the person is corrupted and addiction sets in.

What does stress have to do with addictive behaviors?

Many recovering addicts never learned how to negotiate feelings or daily stress. For the addict, everything that happens daily can be an excuse to use substances to cope. An addict needs to acquire coping skills to negotiate normal daily stress and feelings without the option of drinking or drugging.

What does trauma have to do with drug or alcohol abuse?

Many times, people will experience a trauma in their life and they will not have the support system to process the experience in a healthy way. People can experience a physical trauma, such as being in a car accident, or an emotional trauma, such as the sudden loss of a loved one. Witnessing violence against another can be experienced as a trauma as well. Whatever the trauma is, a person may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate physical or emotional pain. As long as the trauma or pain remains untreated, the likelihood for developing addiction is increased. Once addiction has taken hold of the mind and the body, the addiction will need to be treated as well.

Is there a connection between eating disorders and substance abuse?

There does seem to be a connection between eating disorders and substance abuse. Statistics demonstrate that almost half of those suffering from eating disorders also suffer from substance abuse. 35% of addicts have an eating disorder. Drug abuse or alcohol abuse is usually an attempt by those suffering from eating disorders to self-medicate emotional turmoil being experienced.

Why is addiction classified as a disease?

Drugs alter the way the brain functions; addiction is a chemical imbalance that interferes with cell-to-cell communication. Like other diseases, such as diabetes, one who suffers from addiction is never completely “cured”. However, the disease of addiction can be successfully managed with therapy, medication (if necessary) and addiction support groups. Relapse, similar to the flare up of a condition like diabetes, occurs with stress or if the proper protocol for management is not followed. And, like other diseases, addiction will worsen if treatment and management plans are not followed.

Is there a difference between addiction and dependence?

The line between dependence, abuse, and addiction is not always clear. When a person is prescribed a drug and takes it as prescribed but goes through withdrawal when the prescription is stopped, the body has grown dependent upon the drug. This is different from misusing the drug, seeking it out from any source and taking the drug despite negative consequences. Once dependence shifts to abuse, it can lead to full-blown addiction.

Is internet abuse considered an addiction?

At the moment, though many psychiatrists expect this to change, there is no formal or official diagnosis for internet addiction, which includes internet pornography and internet gambling. However, many addiction healthcare professionals are finding more and more people suffering from what is now unofficially considered an internet addiction. If the definition of addiction is applied to internet use, one can see how internet abuse falls within the category of addiction. Addiction is compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance regardless of the negative consequence.

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If I am addicted to a drug, does that mean I am addicted to other drugs?

There is a difference between addiction and dependence. If you have been prescribed a painkiller, have taken it as prescribed and are weaned off of it under the supervision of your physician, you are not considered to be addicted. If, however, you have abused drugs not prescribed to you by taking them from friends or family, for example, you are an addict. Once addiction develops, any drug, alcohol, substance, or behavior can be substituted for the original drug of choice. The addiction to the new substance may take time or happen quickly. Addiction is a programmed disease of the mind and the body that affects one’s physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being.

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What are neurotransmitters?

Every thought, feeling and action is stimulated by the brain. The brain’s ability to communicate with the body’s muscles and organs is based upon naturally occurring chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. There are different neurotransmitters for different thoughts and feelings. When there is too much of one type of neurotransmitter or too little of another, communication from cell to cell in the brain is disrupted. Normal function cannot occur if the chemical balance in the brain is imbalanced.

Do drugs and alcohol affect the brain?

Drugs and alcohol both have a profound affect upon the brain and the whole body. While different drugs and alcoholic beverages influence different parts of the brain, the alterations can sometimes become permanent. The human body is a finely tuned, living machine. Drugs and alcohol disrupt the proper functioning of this mechanism, leading to changes in organ function, cognitive function, emotional function and physical function..

How do drugs and alcohol change the brain?

Drugs and alcohol alter the brain’s ability to function through its natural production of chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals are responsible for all communications in the body and brain and affect all functions. Drugs and alcohol alter the amount of neurotransmitters present at any time and thus alter the brain’s functioning. For example, opiates block pain receptors, and alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, interferes with muscle control and balance. Long- term substance abuse can have profound, permanent effects on the brain, impacting organ health, emotional and intellectual well-being, and physiological health.

What does it mean when a drug is considered a Schedule I, II, III, IV or V drug?

In 1970, Congress passed a Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act which classified certain types of drugs. The drugs were divided into 5 categories:

  • Schedule I- High risk of abuse without any safe accepted medical use
  • Schedule II – High risk of abuse but with some accepted medical uses
  • Schedule III,IV, V – Abuse risk not as high as I or II with accepted medical uses.

If I am prescribed painkillers by my doctor, how can I be addicted to them?

There is a difference between dependence and addiction. If you have been taking your medication as directed by your prescribing physician, your body can still develop a dependence upon the drug. Some drugs are highly addictive by their chemical composition, but your doctor will be able to wean you off the drug without any further problems. The difference between dependence and addiction is how you behave. Do you use the drug outside of the prescribed manner? Do you seek to get the drug from people other than your doctor or are you doctor shopping?  Dependence does not necessarily involve compulsive seeking or the emotional need to use the drug. It could simply mean tolerance to the substance.

Why might I need to stop using controlled substances if they were prescribed by my doctor?

A prescription written by a physician is not a guarantee against addiction. The new classes of drugs used to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia, or pain are extremely powerful. In many instances, these drugs, such as Xanax or Vicodin, are addictive. Physicians may be unfamiliar with the addictive nature of the drugs they prescribe. Either way, if you are taking a potent drug, you must speak with your treating doctor about your history of addiction, a family history of addiction, the addictive nature of the drugs, and the weaning off process, which may include withdrawal symptoms.

How many Americans are addicted to prescription drugs?

Millions of people in America are taking prescription drugs for both medical and non-medical purposes. There are no accurate numbers of the millions using prescription drugs illegally. Figures are based upon people who actively seek treatment, people who frequent emergency rooms, people who overdose, and the number of prescriptions dispensed in pharmacies. In 2008, 2 million people visited the emergency room for the misuse of prescription drugs. In 2009, a reported 16 million people used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes. By 2010, 45 million people were reported using prescription stimulants. The numbers are staggering. Of course, the answer to this and other addiction questions fluctuate a great deal when talking about substance abuse statistics.

Does it matter if one is pregnant and using drugs or drinking alcohol?

Yes. The consumption of alcohol and or drugs even in small amounts during pregnancy has a direct impact upon the development of the embryo and then the fetus. No alcohol or drugs should be consumed during pregnancy; however, if you abuse alcohol or drugs and become pregnant, you should seek medical attention before you stop using substances. Any prescription use during pregnancy should also be reviewed by a knowledgeable addiction healthcare professional. Drugs and alcohol cause physical, mental, and emotional problems for the developing fetus during pregnancy and later in life.

Do drugs and alcohol affect women differently than men?

Yes. Women’s bodies respond differently than men’s to both alcohol and drugs. For example, women become addicted to alcohol faster than men and develop more serious health issues more quickly. This is because women do not have a certain enzyme in the stomach that breaks down alcohol, so it goes directly into their bloodstream. Also, men’s and women’s heart rates are different, fat content is different, and hormone levels and types are different. These factors combined with other physical realities impact the effect that drugs and alcohol have on women and men.

If alcohol is legal, why do so many think it is bad for our health?

The legality of alcohol has little to do with the health hazards of alcohol abuse or dependence. Cigarettes are legally sold, but they too are bad for one’s health. Alcohol has a direct impact on every organ in the body, including the brain. Alcohol alters the brain’s ability to communicate from cell to cell, cell to organs, cell to muscles or system to system.

If opiates work on the central nervous system, why am I having trouble sleeping?

The body builds a tolerance to all drugs that are used on a regular basis, including opiates. A tolerance for opiates develops quickly, requiring the user to ingest a higher dosage of the opiate to induce the same desired effect. Opiates are known to produce a “nodding out,” or drowsy, effect; however this is diminished when a tolerance develops. Once the body requires a higher dosage than is being consumed, the body will develop withdrawal symptoms. Insomnia is an opiate withdrawal symptom.es.

Am I at risk for sexual diseases when I abuse drugs?

Because drugs alter the workings of the body’s complex communication system, behaviors that might seem unthinkable when a person is sober lose their sense of danger when he or she is under the influence. The brain’s ability to sense danger and analyze situations and risks is greatly diminished when the use of drugs comes into play because the body’s naturally occurring responses are shut down. Drugs increase the likelihood of risky behavior, including sexual behavior, that can easily lead to transmittal of sexual diseases.

Is there a difference between a major depressive disorder and depression caused by drugs and alcohol?

There is a significant difference between major depressive disorder and drug-induced depression. Without mental health treatment, the major depressive disorder will not be managed and the symptoms will grow worse. Drug-induced depression will subside once a patient has overcomes withdrawal symptoms and receives addiction treatment.

I am a drug addict/alcoholic. Are my children at risk of becoming addicted as well?

There is no simple answer to this question. What scientific research has demonstrated is that a combination of factors leads one to become an addict.
These include:

  • Genetics (heredity)
  • Environment
  • Psychological well-being
  • Psychosocial factors

Genetics is one component. However, children exposed to drug or alcohol addiction without any education or exposure to the contrary are at greater risk of developing addictive behaviors as they mature. They tend to suffer from issues of low self-esteem, abandonment, feeling responsible for the addict, depression, feeling helpless, or high levels of stress. For these reasons, therapy and interventions are advised for the children of addicts.

Why do people keep using drugs when they see the harm it does to them or their families?

Once a person grows addicted to a drug, both body and brain functions are altered. Saying no to drugs before addiction begins is a choice that can be easily acted upon. Once addicted, the choice to say no is greatly diminished. With some drugs, it is impossible to stop using without medically monitored detox and addiction treatment. An addict is aware of the pain being caused to family members, but the disease of addiction is powerful. Like other diseases, it takes medical interventions, perhaps several types of interventions and treatments, to get addictive behaviors under control.

What does ‘addiction is a family disease’ mean?

When one member of a family suffers from an addiction, all other family members suffer as well.

The family unit’s ability to function in healthy ways is altered as everyone adapts to the addict’s behavior. Normal order is destroyed and consequences for individual behaviors are disrupted. As the addict’s condition worsens, so does the physical and psychological health of other family members. Once the addict seeks treatment, it is imperative that the family as a whole receives addiction therapy as well.

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What is a codependent?

Originally, therapists treating alcoholics noticed that family members seemed to suffer along with an alcoholic as the addiction progressed. These family members were called co-alcoholics. Several years later, therapists began to notice that co-alcoholics shared similar behaviors. These symptoms were classified as codependency. Today, mental health professionals understand that codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from generation to generation. A person who constantly places others’ needs before his or her own to the detriment of himself is usually known to be suffering from codependency. Today, the term has been expanded to include anyone from a dysfunctional family unit who is addicted to a relationship or who has learned to repress his or her emotions and needs whether or not there is a relationship with an addict.

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How accurate are drug screening tests?

The accuracy of drug testing depends on the type of drug test, when the drug test is conducted, when the last drug use occurred and the quality of the test. There are a number of ways to test for drug use:

  1. urine testing
  2. blood tests
  3. hair tests

Hair samples can reveal drug use up to 2 -3 months after use, but not the most recent drug use within the last couple of weeks. Alcohol use can be tested in the blood and with a breathalyzer.

What is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)?

The NIDA is a branch of the National Institute of Health. The NIDA is dedicated to “bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction.” As a reflection of its mission, the NIDA has been a major force in providing finances for more studies and for the application of their evidence in programs that enhance treatment and its outcomes which shed light on the correlation between brain function, brain alterations and addiction.

What is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)?

SAMHSA’s mission is to reduce the “impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities.” The Center for Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, and the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality are all part of SAMHSA. SAMHSA promotes ongoing research, best practices, treatment and recovery for both substance abuse and mental health disorders.

What is a withdrawal symptom?

The medical definition for a withdrawal symptom is a physical or psychological response to the abrupt cessation of a substance. Drugs and alcohol usually produce a number of withdrawal symptoms that can range from mild to life threatening. These include but are not limited to:

  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Paranoia
  • Stroke
  • Death

How can I force someone to stop using drugs and alcohol?

The best way to stop a person from using drugs and alcohol is to allow that person to suffer the consequences of his or her behavior, not to force him or her to do anything. It can take a great deal of strength and courage to allow an addict to reach his or her bottom. There are legal methods to hospitalize a person whose use of drugs and alcohol is out of control and who is a danger to himself or herself, but in the end the addict is responsible for the choice to use or not use.