Drug and Alcohol Addiction: 5 Things to Know

Drug and alcohol addiction is a complex mental health issue that can also be physiological in nature. Oftentimes, addictions arise as the body builds up tolerance to a substance, thereby deepening the feeling of needing more of the substance in order to get the desired effect. If you or someone you love are struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction, there are five key factors that you should know regarding addiction and its treatment methods.

Before jumping into the development and treatment of addictions, it is important to note that the American Psychological Association’s Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) no longer utilizes the terms “substance dependence” and “substance abuse.” Instead, the DSM-5 focuses on the level of severity, ranging between mild, moderate, and severe addictions in nine different categories. These nine Substance-Related Disorders include:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Cannabis
  • Hallucinogens
  • Inhalants
  • Opioid
  • Sedatives, Hypnotics, or Anxiolytics
  • Stimulants
  • Tobacco

An individual must meet certain diagnostic criteria in order to be diagnosed with one or more of these Substance-Related Disorders and must be given the diagnosis by a licensed mental health professional.

Now, let us focus first on how and why addiction starts and develops, then how it can be treated.

Addiction Can Be Inherited

There is no singular “addiction gene.” Instead, researchers have identified multiple genes that might potentially take part in addiction, but many scientists also do not rule out environmental factors (such as learned behavior from parent to child).

One example of such a genetic linkage is that of CYP2A6, a protective allele. This allele causes non-smokers to feel dizziness and nausea when exposed to smoke. Many smokers do not carry this allele and, therefore, do not experience the type of nausea that makes smoke unpleasant for non-smokers.

Additionally, research finds that DRD2 (a dopamine receptor gene) has an allele called A1 that is prevalent in individuals with cocaine or alcohol addictions, but not in those who do not have such addictions.

Addictions Become Compulsions

Addictive behaviors are, by definition, compulsive. The reason why many addictions gain such powerful holds over individuals is that they are compulsively driven by the pursuit of reward. For some people, the reward is feeling happier or less in physical or emotional pain. As resistance to a substance builds, the reward becomes more difficult to obtain, prompting more compulsive behavior to use the substance more frequently and/or in larger doses. Cravings intensify over time, further impairing cognitive control.

Although addictions often cause social impairments, it can be difficult for an addicted person to give up what they are addicted to. Most addicts are aware of the harmful side-effects inherent in their addiction, but struggle to control the compulsive behaviors and obsessive thoughts. Many addicts are also aware of the painful (and sometimes even lethal) effects of withdrawal from certain substances. These unpleasant sensations might be deterrents to quitting for some people.

Addiction Is Often Linked to Other Psychiatric Problems

One of the aspects of addiction that makes it so complex is that there are often other psychiatric issues that co-occur with addiction symptoms. In psychiatric jargon, this is referred to as comorbidity. Comorbidities are quite common among those diagnosed with Substance-Related Disorders.

Most commonly, those with anxiety or mood disorders are likely to develop addictions. In fact, roughly 40% of smokers in America are also diagnosed with some sort of psychiatric disorder. Those who smoke tend to have comorbidities with anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcoholism, schizophrenia, or Bi-Polar Disorder. Since these comorbidities are so prevalent, the diagnosis and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders can decrease addictive behaviors.

Since addiction and other psychiatric disorders have genetic correlations on their own, there is potentiality for overlapping genetic vulnerabilities. In other words, there might be specific genes that make a person more vulnerable to both addiction and other psychiatric conditions, or that one will develop as the result of the other. Researchers found that there are several human genome regions that correlate with an increased risk for mental disorders and addiction.

Change Is Long and Difficult

As is the case with many psychiatric issues, recovering from addiction is not easy. Change, however, is possible, even though there is potential for relapse with many individuals. If you quit a substance cold-turkey, you will likely experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. For some who attempt to quit, this is enough to prompt a relapse. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse finds that roughly 40-60% of recovering drug addicts will experience a relapse.

Sometimes, a relapse might indicate that the current method of therapy is not as effective as it needs to be for an individual to experience meaningful recovery. Treatment is not by any means a straightforward process. If you enter therapy with a resistance to change, therapy might not be as effective as it could be if you felt intrinsically motivated to enact changes with the help of a therapist.

Given the difficulties inherent in trying to recover from addiction, it is important to consider what types of therapies might be the most helpful in guiding addicts through the recovery process.

Individualized Treatment Regimens Are the Most Effective

As human beings, we all have unique needs and experiences. Every addicted person is different, so it stands to reason that treatment for addiction functions in an individualized way. Treatment regimens can be designed to fit the needs of the individual seeking help, and these regimens tend to be more effective than streamlined group therapy alternatives, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Therapists who conduct individualized treatment regimens will, in their sessions, work with clients to focus on problems currently preoccupying the client. For example, an entire session could be spent discussing barriers to recovery and possible ways to overcome those barriers. Many therapists employ Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in order to help clients change their attitudes and behaviors by getting clients to pay closer attention to their own cognitive processes. The end-goal is that clients will be able to experience positive thoughts and behaviors in response to negative events in their lives.

If you or a loved one are experiencing issues with drug and/or alcohol addiction, it is important to know that there is hope for change. While addictions might have genetic links and comorbidities with other potentially inherited mental illnesses, individualized treatment can be effective in treating both addictions and other mental illnesses, especially if you or your loved one are motivated to make changes and supported in seeing them through.

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