Drug Addiction & Abuse

What is drug addiction and abuse?

Drug addiction and abuse describes an unhealthy and compulsive relationship with drugs. Broadly defined, addiction means that an individual’s everyday life becomes disrupted because of continued engagement with unhealthy behaviors. When it comes to drug addiction, the repetitive use of harmful substances alters individuals’ neurological function, especially the parts of the brain that deal with reward and self-control.

Individuals who are addicted to drugs show varied brain structure and functionality when compared to those who are not addicted to drugs (1). Because of the changes in the brain, even those who want to quit find it incredibly difficult to break their dependency. This leads to continued use of drugs despite negative consequences in relationships, professional lives, and physical health.

Drug addictions could be to substances like marijuana or cocaine. They can also include prescription medications like Adderall, Ritalin, sedatives, Xanax, or opiates, opioids, and other painkillers. Many drugs involved in drug addiction and abuse are legal with prescriptions and are appropriate to take for legitimate medical reasons. However, they can also be used recreationally and can become an addiction.

While the DSM-V lists substance use disorders as a mental health condition, that doesn’t mean that you have to wait until you qualify for a diagnosis to seek help.

Prevalence of drug addiction and abuse

According to a 2021 study (2), 10% of Americans experience a drug addiction throughout their lifetimes. That amounts to around 23 million Americans struggling with drug addiction and abuse at any given time.

While drug addiction and abuse is a common mental health disorder, there still remains a stigma that hinders open discussion about its challenges. This stigma can create more barriers to starting treatment.

Symptoms of drug addiction and abuse

The symptoms of drug addiction and abuse vary depending on the individual and the drug. However, there are several common symptoms that occur in most drug addictions and include:

  • A growing tolerance for the drug, meaning that to get the same effect the user consumes larger quantities.
  • Difficulties stopping use, despite multiple attempts and clear negative repercussions.
  • Interferences in daily life, including increased relationship conflicts, lower performance in school or in the workplace, or an inability to complete regular daily tasks like laundry, food preparation, or personal hygiene.
  • Cravings for the drug, including obsessive thoughts about when the drug will be used next.
  • Increased risk behaviors, including using the drug where it is physically unsafe.
  • Experiences of withdrawal that only dissipate when the drug is taken again.

Even having one or two of these symptoms could point towards an unhealthy relationship with drugs, which can mean that it could be beneficial to work with a mental health professional.

Seeking help for drug addiction and abuse

Because drug addiction and abuse is a common struggle faced by many, as well as its immense negative consequences for individuals, families, and communities, there are many resources for those who would like help stopping their drug use. This includes:

  • Hotlines, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline on 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • Outpatient treatments that provide psychoeducation on addiction and drug use, as well as helpful resources that help you decrease your usage
  • Inpatient treatments, including detox, that provide around-the-clock support in a closed environment
  • Support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous where peers can help each other through shared experiences
  • Individual therapy with a mental health clinician who has specialized training in drug addictions
  • Medical intervention by a doctor or healthcare team

If you are concerned about your drug use or a loved one's drug use, it’s never too early to seek help. Drug addiction and misuse impacts the brain; when treatment is started earlier, there is more opportunity to decrease dependency on the substance and avoid structural brain changes.

Therapy for drug addiction and abuse

Therapy for drug addiction and abuse focuses on symptom management, harm reduction techniques, and the underlying factors that contribute to the addiction. Treatment may also focus on anxiety, depression, or any other mental health conditions that contribute or are exacerbated by drug usage.

A trained therapist creates an environment that is non-judgmental, strengths-based, and trauma-informed. Within this environment, individuals can feel comfortable opening up about the ways that drug use impacts their lives and the many reasons why their addictions began.

There are many therapy modalities that are particularly helpful for those with drug addiction and abuse. These include:

When seeking a therapist to help with drug addiction and abuse, be sure to look for additional training, credentials, or experience in working with addictions. Many therapists list this information on their profiles or websites.

One of the most important aspects of a successful therapy journey is a strong therapeutic alliance. This means that the client and therapist have a trusting relationship, so the client feels comfortable speaking openly with their therapist. To see if you have the potential for a trusting relationship with a therapist, it’s best to give them a call and learn more about their backgrounds, practice philosophies, and personalities so you can make an informed decision about whether or not they would be a good support person during recovery.