For those who offer support to family and friends trapped in addiction, seeking to understand the wide range of addictive legal and illegal drugs can be very confusing. Why do doctors prescribe medications if they can destroy a person’s life? How do you know when you are truly addicted to alcohol or another substance? The questions seem endless.
Alcohol and Substance Abuse can Never be Reversed
Addictive potential means that repeated use of the substance has the capacity to change the user’s brain in ways that contribute to drug cravings and intense drug-seeking behavior, causing the person to repeatedly seek out and use the drug despite its harmful effects. Science has confirmed that when this occurs, there are signs and symptoms of a chronic brain disease. Alcohol and substance abuse cannot be reversed, and the brain’s attraction to addictive substances never goes away. The addicted person has a condition that must be managed for the rest of their life through a process we call “recovery,” which starts at a substance abuse center like St. Joseph Institute.
Once the brain has been changed and made hypersensitive to the mood-altering effects of drugs and alcohol, the person becomes highly susceptible to cross-addiction. This means that a person who has been treated for alcohol addiction is likely to be triggered to drink or use drugs after being prescribed pain medication following surgery, or after taking a tranquilizer to ease anxiety or after using cough syrup to fight a cold. The original addictive pattern is imprinted in the brain of an addict and can be triggered by any mood altering substance. Hence, those who suffer from addiction must always be on guard for ways in which they might be triggered to relapse.
Science is working hard to understand addiction, but many aspects of this brain disease are still unknown. How quickly an individual becomes addicted to certain drugs or whether there are specific events that trigger an addiction are not clear. An alcoholic may develop a problem soon after their first use or not become truly addicted for many years. Conversely, opioids like OxyContin, Percocet, heroin and Vicodin can establish a strong addiction within 12 weeks. One fact that has been confirmed is that using addictive substances in teenage years and early adulthood, when the brain is still in formation, greatly increases the risk of addiction.
A good first step in understanding drugs and their addictive potential is to recognize the six categories of addictive drugs and the different ways in which they affect the brain and body.
Category 1: Stimulants
Stimulants speed up the central nervous system. producing a quick but temporary increase in energy. Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and anxiety, panic and paranoia can also result. Drugs include:
- Amphetamines such as speed and bennies
- Tobacco and caffeine (two of the most commonly used stimulants, both with addictive qualities)
Category 2: Depressants
Depressants slow down the central nervous system, causing relaxation, lowered inhibitions, loss of coordination, drowsiness and impaired memory. Drugs include:
- Benzodiazepines like Librium, Valium, Xanax and Ativan
- Barbiturates like Seconal and Nembutral
- Sleep aids like Dalmane, Ambien and Lunesta
Category 3: Opioids
Opioids are central nervous system depressants whose primary action is pain relief. Initially they produce a rapid and intense feeling of pleasure (euphoria) followed by a sense of well-being and calm drowsiness. Brain function, heart rate and respiration all slow down, sometimes to dangerous levels. Drugs include:
Category 4: Hallucinogens
These drugs are used to produce altered states of perception, distortions of reality or hallucinations. They cause increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, and rapid shifts in emotions. Drugs include:
Category 5: Cannabinoids
These create many of the same sensations as hallucinogenic drugs; however, the altered perception and distortions occur to a lesser degree. They are considered the “gateway drugs” that often lead to the use of other more powerful drugs. The two principle substances are marijuana and hashish, often referred to as:
Category 6: Other
This category of drugs contains a wide range of synthetic compounds that produce various physical and mental symptoms, many of which are very dangerous. These drugs include:
- Anabolic steroids such as Anadrol and Oxandrin
- Club drugs such as MDMA (ecstasy), Rohypnol, GHB and Ketamine
- Bath salts such as Blizzard
- Cough medicines with codeine