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Drugs and Alcohol 101

What is addiction? Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain - they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.

Why do people take drugs?

In general, people begin taking drugs for a variety of reasons. We also know that the earlier someone uses a substance, the more likely he or she is to develop a dependency or addiction later in life.

  • To feel good. Most abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the “high” is followed by feelings of power, self-confidence and increased energy. In contrast, the euphoria caused by opiates such as heroin is followed by feelings of relaxation and satisfaction.

  • To feel better. Some people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders and depression begin abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse or relapse in patients recovering from addiction.

  • Curiosity and "because others are doing it." In this respect, teens are particularly at risk because peer pressure can be very strong. Teens are more likely than adults to act in risky or daring ways to impress their friends and show their independence from parents and social rules.

  • Biological factors. Individuals may inherit a pre-disposition - or greater likelihood - to substance use disorders. Scientists have found that the interaction of genes, experiences and environment can influence a person's behavior and health. In addition, genetic makeup can influence the chances that a person will experience a substance use disorder.

(National Institute on Drug Abuse; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)