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What is substance addiction?

Substance addiction (also known as drug addiction or substance use disorder) is a chronic brain disorder that causes compulsive seeking and use of a substance, despite the harmful consequences to the addicted individual and those around them.

An addiction occurs when substances, such as drugs, tobacco or alcohol – are used excessively (and repeatedly) to the extent that an individual becomes dependent on them and feels they cannot function without them.

Here, we will explore substance addiction, including the symptoms and when to seek treatment for a substance use disorder.

Contact a specialist at Centres for Health and Healing for information and advice about our substance abuse treatment programs.

Drug addiction rates in Ontario, Canada

Many might be surprised to learn that drug addiction (and alcohol use) is widespread in Ontario, Canada.

Often referred to as the “hotbed” of substance abuse, Ontario has some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse among various states, with over 10% of the Canadian population struggling with an addiction.

Reports show that over 50% of school children in Canada have experimented with marijuana, approximately 12.5% have tried hallucinogens, and 90% of teenagers admitted to using alcohol.

Moreover, studies have shown that alcohol and drug-related crimes are significantly higher in Ontario than in other Canadian regions.

How does a substance addiction start?

Substance addiction often begins with the experimental use of recreational drugs in social situations.

However, substance abuse can also start with exposure to over-the-counter or prescription medication.

Substance use: a coping mechanism

The substances people abuse are typically used to produce pleasure, alleviate stress or pain, and escape (or alter) one’s reality.

An individual’s initial decision to take substances is usually voluntary.

However, over time, specific changes in the brain can significantly impair a person’s ability to exert self-control, where they may find it impossible to resist the intense impulses that urge them to continue using.

What are the stages leading to substance addiction?

Over time, people who become addicted to substances typically go through five main stages:

  1. Experimentation
  2. Regular use
  3. Problem or risky use
  4. Dependence
  5. Addiction

It might be helpful for you to remember that not every person who experiments with substances will become a regular user (or move through all the different stages).

In our experience, it can be challenging to predict why one person develops an addiction to substances while another doesn’t.

However, we do know that various factors influence whether a person will become addicted or not.

These risk factors include the following:

  • Family history
  • Genetics
  • Personality traits
  • Personal circumstances

In addition, the type of substance used also plays a significant role in addiction, with some substances being far more addictive than others.

What are the causes of substance addiction?

Substance addiction is a highly complex disease.

While no single cause has been identified, several risk factors are known to play an influential role in why some people develop substance use disorders while others don’t.

These factors include the following:

  • Biological factors (e.g. gender, genetic vulnerability, and physiological vulnerability)
  • Psychosocial factors (e.g. underlying mental health issues and personality traits, such as high impulsivity, sensation-seeking or low self-esteem)
  • Contextual factors (e.g. family history of substance misuse or addiction, poor coping skills, lack of social support structure, history of trauma, social pressure and chronic stress)
  • Sociocultural or environmental factors (e.g. media influence, easy access to substances, low socioeconomic status or community poverty).

As mentioned, the type of substance a person uses plays a significant role in whether or not they become addicted. For instance, drugs such as heroin, cocaine and painkillers are highly addictive. 

Therefore, an individual abusing these drugs may develop an addiction more rapidly.

What are the most commonly used substances?

One of the reasons substance addiction is such a complex disease is that people can become addicted to a diverse range of substances.

Additionally, how a substance affects each individual will vary and depend on many factors.

Commonly abused drugs

The most commonly used drugs in substance use disorders include:

  • Depressants (e.g. alcohol, tranquillisers, benzodiazepines, valium, and Xanax)
  • Stimulants (e.g. amphetamines, ecstasy or MDMA, cocaine, and methamphetamine)
  • Opioids (these are potent painkillers that include morphine, heroin, codeine, and Vicodin)
  • Cannabinoids (e.g. marijuana, hashish, and K2 /spice)
  • Hallucinogens (e.g. LSD/acid, ketamine, PCP, and mushrooms)
  • Inhalants (e.g. glues and solvents, aerosol sprays, cleaning fluids, and nitrous oxide)
  • Anabolic steroids (e.g. stanozolol and oxandrin)
  • Prescription drugs
  • Over-the-counter drugs (e.g. sleep aids, cold and flu remedies, and diet pills).

If you (or a loved one) are struggling with substance addiction, there are various ways you can get the support and help you need. Contact our team to find out more about our addiction services.

What is polydrug addiction?

Polydrug use is a rapidly growing phenomenon involving taking multiple drugs in combination to achieve the desired effects.

For example, many people will drink alcohol and take painkillers simultaneously; this helps to intensify the feelings (or high) the person gets from each drug.

Another example of polydrug use is when someone with a cocaine misuse disorder also misuses alcohol and sleeping pills.

For many, the goal of taking multiple drugs is to enhance the effects of each substance. However, studies show that some people abuse multiple drugs to counteract the effects of each substance.

For instance, someone who takes cocaine may simultaneously take sleeping pills to calm down.

Reasons for polydrug use

Some of the main reasons for polydrug use include the following:

  • To intensify or prolong the pleasurable effects of each drug
  • To help control or balance out the harmful effects of individual drugs
  • To substitute desired results, which provide new or more intense highs

Risks associated with polydrug use

Combining drugs is extremely dangerous and comes with various risks.

When combined, the effects of individual drugs can become highly unpredictable, meaning it’s hard to predict how each person will react to using multiple drugs simultaneously.

Polydrug addiction presents numerous complications and challenges to recovery.

We believe there is a growing need for specific polydrug addiction treatment programs to address the unique clinical challenges presented by this type of addiction.

What are the main effects of substance addiction?

The effects of substance addiction can have a significant impact on a person’s brain and mental health.

Brain imaging studies have shown physical changes in an addict’s brain critical to decision-making, learning, memory, judgement and behaviour control.

These physical changes significantly alter brain functioning, leading to compulsive and self-destructive behaviours.

Mental health and addiction

Studies show a profound link between mental health disorders and addiction; these include:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Depression
  • Lack of focus
  • Memory loss
  • Permanent brain damage

Co-occurring disorders

In addition to the above, it is common for other concurrent mental health disorders to co-occur with substance use disorder.

Often, symptoms of a mental health disorder appear first, resulting in a person using drugs to numb unpleasant feelings or emotions.

On the other hand, an individual’s substance addiction may present before a mental health condition develops.

In addition, studies show that specific drugs can alter an individual’s brain structure and function, which may lead to them developing particular mental health conditions, including:

A combination of the above can result in adverse outcomes across various aspects of an individual’s life.

These outcomes include the following:

  • Poor performance at work or loss of employment
  • A decrease in social or recreational activities (that may lead to increased isolation)
  • Mood changes
  • Social withdrawal
  • Relationship problems, including family issues and divorce
  • A lack of interest in self-care and maintaining personal hygiene
  • Increased impulsivity, impaired judgement and risky behaviours
  • Legal and financial troubles
  • Homelessness

How does substance addiction affect physical health?

In addition to affecting brain chemistry and function, continued substance use adversely affects almost every organ in the body.

The severity of damage caused by substance addiction will depend on the type of substance used, duration and other factors.

However, some of the more common physical effects of a substance use disorder include the following:

  • A weakened immune system (which may increase a person’s susceptibility to illness and infection).
  • Cardiovascular problems, including collapsed veins and heart attacks
  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Decreased liver function, which can lead to liver damage or liver failure
  • Kidney damage or kidney failure
  • Respiratory problems – including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer
  • Seizures, strokes and brain damage
  • Several types of cancer
  • Withdrawal symptoms (if the drug is reduced or stopped).

Help and support

The effects of substance addiction may continue to worsen without treatment and professional help, resulting in adverse outcomes across many areas of your life.

Fortunately, most of the damage caused by substance use disorders can be minimised (or reversed) by getting sober.

The only way to prevent irreversible damage from chronic substance abuse is to seek addiction treatment as soon as possible.

How can substance addiction be treated?

While there is no known cure for drug addiction, the good news is that the condition can be effectively treated and managed.

Evidence-based treatment programs (under specialist supervision) have significantly increased the chances of fully recovering and preventing relapse.

A specific, dual-diagnosis treatment program significantly increases recovery effectiveness when co-occurring disorders occur.

Research shows that it is essential to treat co-occurring disorders simultaneously to achieve the best treatment outcomes.

The complex nature of substance use disorder, and the multiple variables involved in each case, means there isn’t one treatment method that works across the board.

However, various treatment approaches are available to help people overcome substance use disorders.

Research shows that combining cognitive behaviour therapies with addiction treatment medications (known as medication-assisted treatment) is most likely to ensure successful, lasting recovery.

This treatment combination must be tailored to each individual’s drug abuse patterns (and any co-occurring psychiatric, medical and social problems) to achieve full recovery, lasting sobriety and sustained wellness.

Medication-assisted treatment usually involves a combination of the following:

  • Behaviour therapy and counselling. Standard treatment types include Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Mindfulness Therapy)
  • Evaluation and treatment of co-occurring mental health issues
  • Medication treatment. Medications can be used to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms during detoxification, which helps prevent relapse and treat co-occurring conditions like depression.
  • Community support. Outpatient treatment may involve different programs, including in-person or online support groups, which provide valuable education, encouragement and social support.
  • Long-term follow-up and aftercare programs to reduce and prevent the likelihood of relapse.

The length of addiction treatment depends on many factors, including the severity of a person’s addiction, the type of substance used and whether there are any co-occurring mental health disorders.

Drug addiction treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

Substance addiction treatment at Centres for Health and Healing is client-focused.

We know that every client requires a unique recovery plan based on their personal needs, treatment goals and preferences.

Through a strategic, holistic approach, mixed therapeutic methods and staff with decades of knowledge and experience, Centres for Health and Healing provides the setting, resources and tools necessary for your successful recovery from addiction.

Recovery is a lifelong journey of building new healthy habits, avoiding triggers and fostering mental wellness.

That’s why we include a comprehensive aftercare plan to ensure you are fully supported when you leave our centre.

Admitting there is a problem, and seeking professional help, is the first step to building a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.

Please get in touch with us to discuss treatment options. We are here and ready to help.

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