As an American psychologist and teacher of high school, it is evident that the research carried out by the Ministry of Youth and ICT (MYICT) in 2015 demonstrates a trend that we in the United States have been coping with for many years. It is true that drug dependence and abuse are threats to society. The question, of course, is how does the use of something that starts as a type of “fun” or “relaxation” become abused and then an addiction that is out of control?
There is a great deal of important research that comes from the National Institute of Drug Abuse directed by Dr Nora Volkow. Dr Volkow is known for her work on brain imaging of drug users, abusers and addicts. The information that she has found completely changed how we should view the drug or alcohol user once he or she becomes addicted. The major reason for this is that, after a very short or longer period of use, depending on the drug or substance, the brain adapts to the foreign substance and needs it to function on a normal level.
In more detail, it works in the following way: if a person decides to use a very addictive drug, such as methamphetamine or any number of opiates, after even one or two uses the brain begins to rely on it. Put simply but accurately, the brain is made of many different types of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, are responsible for specific emotions such as pleasure, enjoyment, happiness, and a sense of reward. When we do something that makes us happy, such as being with our children or helping a neighbor, we naturally feel these enjoyable emotions. When a person decides to try a drug that causes these chemical messengers to be activated artificially, the person feels these strong and very positive emotions because of the drug and for no other reason. In order to continue to feel these wonderful emotions, the person needs to continue use of the drug or substance that is giving him or her these emotions. Eventually, with continued use, the amount and freq
uency of use must increase because the brain becomes more tolerant of the old habits. It begs for more.
Here is the part that many people do not know. Once a person begins to depend on the drug or substance to cause the emotions they desire, the brain will reduce its own ability to produce these neurotransmitters naturally. The brain develops a true dependence on the drug or substance. Pleasurable or enjoyable activities are no longer enough because the artificial substance works faster, stronger and longer than a pleasurable behavior. Once the brain chemistry is changed, it is very hard to return it to the way it was before the addiction occurred. Because it is such a challenge and takes time, the substance user loses patience, gives up and prefers to resume drug or substance use. It is easier and relief is immediate. The addiction has been born.
Dr Volkow’s research shows that the brain is actually changed by the strength and duration of drug or substance use. It makes the behavior more of a physical illness once addiction has taken place. The person’s struggle to stop becomes an enormous challenge especially if there is little happiness, satisfaction or enjoyment in everyday life. The reasons are many and those will be discussed in a future article. The fact that some people are more likely to develop an addiction than others comes as a surprise to many, but shouldn’t be ignored. There is a known genetic component with substance and drug use, abuse, dependence and addiction.
The writer is a clinical psychologist working with teenagers