Addiction is a serious condition, despite the casual use the word often receives. People often confuse its characteristics with those of physical dependence and habit, or use the terms interchangeably. The fact is that while someone dealing with a habit or dependence is suffering a chronic disease, an addict is. The brain actually undergoes alterations during the process of becoming addicted, and those changes impact how the addict experiences pleasure. Understanding the foundations on which this problem is built can help to avoid, recognize, and treat this widespread, life-threatening condition.
Distinguishing the Terms
Because habit and dependence are both aspects of an addictive condition’s development, they are often misconstrued as being addictive conditions themselves. However, neither has the control over a person’s life that an addictive substance or activity has. A habit may become addicting if the conditions are right. This transition from pleasant activity to driven behavior can be caused by using a habit to combat stress, to fit in with a peer group, or simply repeating it too often with certain genetic dispositions. Dependence, on the other hand, often accompanies the formation of an addictive condition. When the body develops tolerance to a substance, and suffers withdrawal symptoms in the absence of that substance, physical dependence is present.
- Habits are distinguished by the fact that they are performed by choice. The habit can be stopped successfully with an act of will.
- Dependence is the physical result of persistent use of a substance.
- Addiction is a physiologic or psychological compulsive reliance on either a substance or practice. The addict has lost voluntary control and often experiences problems in other areas of life because of it.
The Brain’s Role
The brain is wired to encourage certain activities in life, using reward and pleasure circuits involving the chemical dopamine for such activities as eating. When an activity or ingested substance activates those circuits, the result can be addicting or create a dependence. Over time, the reward circuits or pathways are changed, affecting the entire brain. A brain that has been addicted to meth has cells that are different in structure from normal brain cells. The changes are distinct and long-lasting. When people assume that an addict can be stop by sheer willpower, they ignore or are ignorant of this physical reality.
Becoming an Addict in Teenage Years
Teenagers have long had problems with peer pressure and such destructive habits as smoking cigarettes and consuming alcohol. By far, most adult smokers got their start either at or before the age of eighteen; in fact, 90 percent of adults addicted to nicotine found their start at eighteen or younger. Because the adolescent brain is still forming in vital ways, teenagers are much more likely to become a lifelong addict than those who start habits later in life.
Causes and Predispositions
Some circumstances lead more readily to becoming addicted than others. The factors that influence this are varied, ranging from the genes to the environment to the substance in question. Genes and biology can play a large role, as those with family members who are addicts are more likely to eventually become one themselves. An existing mental illness or condition such as depression also have an increased risk of becoming addicted to drugs, nicotine, or alcohol. A lack of close family ties, loneliness, and peer pressure create an environment given to addictive behaviors. Finally, some of the likelihood of a problem relies on the strength of the substance, how the body metabolizes it, and the frequency with which it is consumed.
Those who do not already have a problem with this condition can take note of the potential factors which might make a problem more likely for them, and take steps to avoid such problems. Anyone who recognizes the symptoms personally or several of the signs in others can take steps for treatment and offer help. Addiction is a life-destroying chronic condition that is highly expensive on both a national and personal level.