For many, understanding an addict is often easier said than done. Their behavior is often unpredictable and destructive. They seem to care only about using. For someone on the outside, this disregard for the rest of life can be frustrating, even infuriating. It’s not surprising, then, that many people lose patience with addicts.
In your good-natured struggle to help, you may become frustrated with the one step forward and two steps back ‘progress’ that addicts seem to make. In this post, we’ll shed light on why an addict behaves the way they do, and we’ll describe the brain changes that occur as addiction takes root.
Understanding these brain changes can help you interact with the addict in a more productive way. We’ll also give you concrete tips on how to spot illicit drug use and how to deal with loved ones, such as teens, who are struggling with addiction. Let’s get started.
What is Addiction?
The first step toward understanding the addict is to know that addiction itself is complex. Once viewed as a moral failing—a tendency for certain individuals to give in to temptation—it is now viewed as a chronic condition affecting the brain. The flawed belief that addiction is a moral failing has its roots in early research, going all the way back to the 1930s. These researchers lacked the powerful brain imaging we have today, and they only had the behavior of afflicted individuals to go on. Consequently, these folks came to the conclusion that in order to get addicts to change, authorities must punish them with imprisonment, or else simply teach them ‘willpower.’
Today, however, researchers understand that addiction manifests as a compulsion to consume a given substance, regardless of consequences. Therefore, the threat of imprisonment is not a good deterrent. Similarly, telling someone to ‘have willpower’ doesn’t do any good.
Often, addiction starts out as controlled use, but a downward spiral ensues that causes major disruption to the person’s life. This can lead to:
- Loss of income
- Loss of home
- Loss of life
We’ll cover these later in this post. Stay tuned.
The Behavior & Psychology of Addicts
Many drugs, whether available by prescription or not, can prove addictive. A few of these are:
- Inhalants such as a glue or paint thinners
- Sedatives and anxiolytics
The next thing to understand about addicts is that once gripped by addiction, many suffer from distorted thinking. This manifests as thought patterns centered around obtaining their drug of choice. Thought distortions, such as FOMO—fear of missing out—catastrophizing and all or nothing thinking, help addicts to justify their behaviors.
You’ve likely heard the phrase, ‘The grass is greener on the other side.’ This is the slogan of folks gripped by FOMO. As addiction changes the brain, addicts become more impulsive. When they’re without their drug of choice, they experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Then, if presented with an opportunity to obtain their drug, it can be difficult to abstain. FOMO drives them to imagine how wonderful it would be to indulge in their drug of choice.
This leads the addict to engage in another thought distraction: catastrophizing. This is a thought pattern that focuses on the worst case scenario, sees only negatives, and disregards the positives. For instance, an addict in recovery, when gripped by withdrawal, may disregard the positive aspects of remaining sober. Finally, then, we arrive at the all or nothing thought distortion. This is a mental state characterized by polarized thinking.
In extreme cases, the addict must obtain their substance of choice or life is simply not worth living. In this frenzied state, it is all or nothing.
Therefore, even if obtaining the drug involves risk, these thought distortions drive the addict to do whatever they can to relieve the withdrawal symptoms.
Over time, this can lead to a deterioration of quality of life in the form of eroded social bonds, hygiene, financial standing and health.
A Complex Brain Issue
At this point, it’s important to note that many of these effects are due to changes within the brain as addiction takes hold. No one sets out to become an addict. People use drugs for the first time for any number of reasons, and while that may not be wise, they are not making a conscious decision to become addicted.
Here are a few reasons people try drugs for the first time:
- To feel better or to relieve stress
- To feel good, or to experience a high
- To enhance performance
- Peer pressure
Source: The National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Numerous brain imaging studies have shown that addiction affects areas of the brain responsible for learning, decision making, judgment and behavior control. In other words, as the brain becomes dependent on a substance, the substance changes the way the brain works.
Moreover, these effects don’t appear as someone is smoking or shooting up. Some of these changes last long after the effects of the drug itself have worn off. The addict may be after the intoxication effect, or they may be seeking to ease withdrawal symptoms, but under the hood, something more insidious is going on.
You see, many drugs, such as cocaine and opioids, stimulate the brain to an extreme degree. This causes dopamine levels in the brain to rise. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and motivation.
The bottom line: all drugs, including nicotine and marijuana, cause a dopamine surge in the brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens.
Over time, the brain responds to this hyper-stimulation by either reducing dopamine receptors in the brain, or reducing dopamine levels. Therefore, the addict notices that they need more of the drug to get the high they’re accustomed to, or to relieve withdrawal symptoms. This is known as tolerance.
As tolerance increases, the thought distortions mentioned earlier may become more prevalent. This can lead to some of the disruptive behaviors associated with addicts.
Whether a person will become addicted to a substance or not depends on the extent that the substance stimulates the brain’s pleasure center, the degree to which it does so, and how often the stimulation occurs.
None of this is meant to absolve the addict of responsibility for their actions. But it is our hope that knowing how addiction changes the brain can shed light on why addicts behave the way they do.
Did you know…the word ‘addiction’ is derived from the Latin term for ‘enslaved by?’
Over 20-million Americans are addicted to either alcohol or hard drugs. That’s nearly 1 in ten people.
More than 50 percent of addicts also abuse alcohol.
Because addiction involves dopamine, it’s also possible to become addicted to behaviors, such as gambling, sex and shopping.
Recognize Symptoms of Substance Abuse Disorder
We can group symptoms of addiction into four broad categories:
- Impaired control. The individual begins to lose their grip on their day-to-day life because of an inability to abstain from their drug of choice. They also experience recurring cravings, or an urge to use. Additionally, they likely have tried to reduce their level of consumption but have failed.
- Social problems. Their performance at work or school suffers as the addiction begins taking over. They may miss several days of work in a row, or, if in school, they may begin cutting class or failing tests. At home, their behavior may be disruptive, and friendships that were previously important take a back seat.
- Increased risk taking. The user continues to use even though they know that such use is dangerous. As mentioned, they may engage in risky behaviors in order to relieve withdrawal symptoms.
- Side effects of use. You may notice the person using more of the substance over time. This is generally a red flag. For instance, if you both use a drug recreationally, but your friend is suddenly using more of the drug than usual, they may be developing tolerance. Coupled with the other items on this list, this may indicate addiction. Naturally, you may also notice mood swings or aggressive behavior due to withdrawal symptoms.
- There are additional signs you can look for, hinted at above.
Loss of Income
As the individual slides into addiction, they may miss work. This leads to a smaller paycheck for non-salaried employees, and it may lead to termination of salaried workers. In either case, addicts may find themselves shuffling their finances so they can pay for their substance of choice. This may manifest as erratic budgeting, or, if they don’t follow a budget, it may manifest simply as irresponsible spending.
You may find that the individual asks friends or family for money quite often. Moreover, their explanation for why they need the money may become more and more outlandish.
Loss of Home
Someone struggling with addiction may find it difficult to live harmoniously with others. This may result in them being kicked out and having to ‘crash’ on a friend’s couch. That friend might even be you. If you notice someone going from house to house, or snatching sleep wherever they can, they may be struggling with a drug problem.
Though it may be difficult for someone unfamiliar with addiction to fathom, it’s also possible for a homeowner to spend their mortgage payment on drugs. Over time, this can, of course, result in foreclosure.
Loss of Life
Though that heading may seem a tad dramatic, sadly, it happens. Everyone is familiar with the case of the drunk driver who hit the pedestrian. But general neglect can manifest in more subtle ways, such as a dead plant or undernourished pet. As addiction takes hold, some aspects of life get pushed to the periphery.
Additionally, you should take any recent hospitalizations into account, too. Addiction can lead to malnourishment or neglect of hygiene. Malnourishment opens the door to any number of serious conditions, and poor hygiene can, over time, make it easier for skin infections to take root. What’s more, drug abuse is a leading factor in emergency room visits.
Addiction and the Family
Anyone, regardless of socio-economic status, age or gender can develop an addiction. Many addicts will attempt to hide the problem from friends and family. This can, of course, make it harder to tell if someone needs help.
What’s more, it’s possible to become addicted to legal prescription drugs, such as opioids. Opioids, in particular, are incredibly addictive.
People tend to put their guard down when it comes to prescription drugs because they assume these drugs are safe. This can make it more difficult to approach a family member if you think they may have a problem because they’ll become defensive. After all, it’s a prescription drug they got from a doctor, not a street drug.
Addiction and Children
One in five children grows up in a home in which at least one parent abuses drugs or alcohol.. Witnessing a parent struggle with addiction affects the developing brain. Children who grow up in this environment are more likely to use drugs themselves later in life. Sadly, these children are also three times more likely than other children to experience neglect and physical or sexual abuse. All of this can create distress that leads to developmental delays and, possibly, mental disorders later in life.
Young Adults & Addiction
According to the CDC, underage drinkers consume more alcohol per session than do their adult counterparts. Roughly 20 percent of people between the ages of twelve and twenty drink alcohol on a regular basis. This figure may even be larger due to underreporting.
These days, marijuana use is far more common among teenagers than tobacco. Many teens first try marijuana because of peer pressure, but the substance can serve as a gateway to harder drugs in susceptible individuals. Teenagers who experiment with drugs in their formative years—the brain isn’t developed fully until around age 25—are more likely to use drugs in adulthood.
Spot Drug Use
There are several steps you can take to spot drug use in young adults. Here are but a few.
- The subtle sniff test. After the young adult comes home from socializing with friends, find some reason to have a face-to-face chat. If they’ve been drinking or smoking, you’ll be able to smell that on their clothes, their hair or their breath.
- The subtle eye and face test. Look them in the eyes. Are their eyes red or heavy lidded? Are the pupils constricted? Are they dilated? Do they have difficulty focusing their eyes? Are their cheeks flushed?
- Watch for unusual mood swings. Now that you understand the behavior of the addict, you can put that knowledge to good use. It’s normal for teens to experience mood swings. Same goes for young adults. What you want to do us watch for unusual mood swings—changes in mood that go beyond the norm.
- Watch for unusual behavior. When your teen gets home from socializing with friends, are they unusually clumsy? Are they laughing at nothing? Are they fatigued even though it’s early? If they’re usually chipper, are they now dour, sullen or withdrawn? Do they stumble to the bathroom?
- Watch for changes in driving behavior. Does their driving seem more erratic after they’ve spent time with friends? Are there dents in the vehicle they’ve been unable to explain? If so, a more thorough look at the interior may be warranted. Does the interior smell like smoke or alcohol? Are there any unusual items in the car interior, perhaps under the seats? Drug paraphernalia can take many forms.
Reaching Out to an Addict
Regardless of who it is you’re trying to help, it’s important to set a supportive tone from the outset. There are a few guidelines that you’ll want to follow.
- Be kind. This can be difficult if dealing with a young teen, but it’s important, nevertheless. While they made the choice to try a drug for the first time, the changes that have occurred in their brain—changes that fuel further drug use—were not up to them. Show you care through your behavior. If you go into this with a confrontation mindset, you’ll get nowhere.
- Listen. The general rule of thumb is to listen as much as you talk. For every point you make, listen for a counterpoint. Ensuring that you listen will help the addict relax, and they may not shut down immediately.
- Be predictable. The addict often displays erratic behaviors. You can set a good example by being dependable. This is especially important if you’ve volunteered to serve as support. Show up when you say you’re going to show up, and if you’re going to be late, give them as much notice as you can.
- Be firm. Set boundaries early on. If you’ve decided to try to help an addict, let them know where your line is. If they cross that line, there should be consequences. Though it may seem a paradox, this is part of being kind. Actions have consequences, and the addict must bear this in mind in order to summon the will required for recovery.
Understanding the addict can be difficult for those who have never struggled with addiction. It’s our hope that understanding the changes in brain chemistry that accompany addiction can help non-afflicted individuals come to grips with their often unpredictable behavior.
If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction. You have options, let The Hills be one of them.