What Are
Substance Use Disorders?

Substance Use Disorder, also known as addiction, is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and use despite harmful consequences. When a disease is chronic, that means it’s long-lasting. Remission is possible and can be managed with treatment. Other examples of chronic diseases are asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Opioid use disorder is when someone has an addiction to opioids specifically.

Learn more about substance use disorders.

How Does Addiction
Affect the Brain/Body?

When you start using substances, they affect the brain’s “reward circuit” by flooding your brain with a chemical called dopamine, which creates a sense of euphoria. A properly functioning reward system motivates a person to repeat behaviors needed to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. You eat, the brain releases dopamine, you experience the pleasure of eating, and are encouraged to eat again.

Surges of dopamine produced by opioids or other drugs may cause you to repeat pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors like taking drugs. When you continue to use a drug over and over again, it becomes more difficult for you to get the desired effect. You’ve developed a tolerance, so you take more of the drug to try and achieve the same effect.

At the same time, you can’t enjoy the same activities you once looked forward to, like eating or spending time with friends and family. Repeated drug use rewires your brain’s “reward circuit” to reward drug-taking and nothing else. Long-term use changes your other brain chemical systems and circuits that control learning, judgment, decision-making, stress, memory and behavior.

Once you are addicted to a substance, it is difficult to stop using, even if you area aware of the harmful outcomes. 

Learn the science of addiction here, and find more information on Shatterproof’s website or Vermont’s “Over the Dose” campaign website.

Why Do Some People Get
Addicted While Others Don’t?

No one factor can predict if a person will become addicted to drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A combination of factors influence risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction. For example:

  • Biology. The genes that people are born with account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity and the presence of mental disorders may also influence risk for drug use and addiction.
  • Environment. A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to economic status and general quality of life. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, stress and parental guidance can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of drug use and addiction.
  • Development. Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction risk. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to addiction. This is particularly problematic for teens. Because the areas in their brains that control decision-making, judgment and self-discipline are still developing, teens may be especially prone to risky behaviors, including trying drugs.

An important risk factor is the number/presence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) you might have. ACEs are stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders.

Research has shown a strong relationship between ACEs, substance use disorders and behavioral problems. When children are exposed to chronic, stressful events, their neurodevelopment can be disrupted. As a result, the child’s cognitive functioning or ability to cope with negative or disruptive emotions may be impaired. Over time, and often during adolescence, the child may adopt negative coping mechanisms, such as substance use or self-harm. Eventually, these unhealthy coping mechanisms can contribute to disease, disability and social problems, as well as premature mortality.

Learn more about risk factors:

Learn more about ACEs:

Find additional resources through the links below:

What Are Common
Myths/Misconceptions About Addiction?

There are many myths and misconceptions about addiction that may prevent us from aiding those who need help (including ourselves). Some of the more common myths and misconceptions are:

  • “You can end your addiction whenever you want.”
  • “Addiction is a moral failure.”
  • “All people who use drugs are addicted to them.”
  • “People with addiction are easy to identify.”
  • “You can’t be addicted to a legal prescription drug.”
  • “If you can work, you’re not really addicted.”
  • “Only hard drugs like heroin are dangerous.”
  • “There’s nothing friends or family can do to help with addiction.”
  • “Treatment doesn’t really work.”
  • “Relapse means treatment didn’t work.”

Every one of these statements is false. Believing these false statements can lead us to make poor decisions, which may ultimately cause harm to ourselves and our loved ones.

To help someone with addiction, the first step is to arm yourself with the facts and dispel misconceptions about addiction, treatment and recovery. Learn more about the myths surrounding addiction here, and see which facts people usually get wrong.

What’s the Best Way to
Talk About Addiction?

Addiction is a disease. It’s important that we use language that frames it as a health issue and shows respect to people suffering from addiction and to their families who are impacted—just as we would with any other disease, like diabetes or asthma.

By changing our language, we can reverse harmful stereotypes about addiction and improve access to care and support for people affected by the disease. We need to change negative language like junkie, addict and alcoholic if we are to lessen the stigma and negativity that often saturates the perception of drug addiction.

We can make a difference just by using thoughtful and accurate language about addiction.

Learn more from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids:

Learn more from Shatterproof:

What Are the
Signs of Addiction?

When a person is misusing drugs, there are often “red flags” you can learn to recognize.

Learn more from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Find additional information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.