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Addiction is a disease characterized by compulsive seeking and use of drugs. It is considered a brain disease because it has a direct effect on it, changing its structure and functioning. In recent years, many genetic and environmental factors have been identified that help us better address the treatment of addictions and reduce their impact on the individual, family and society.

Drugs act on the body by stimulating the circuit that regulates emotion and behavior, creating a perception of pleasure. Prolonged use of a drug creates the so-called ‘tolerance effect’, which implies that increasing doses of the addictive substance is needed to get the same effect. Thus the drugs cause changes in the individual and may lead to progressively worse consequences.

This addictive process can happen with different types of substances, whether legal or illegal. Note that Spain is one of the countries of the European Union with the highest rates of consumption of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and cocaine. In addition, the age of addiction’s onset is becoming younger and younger, fuelled by the perception of low risk by young people. That’s why addiction can also be defined as a developmental disease, since it typically begins in adolescence.

In some cases, genetic factors or the existence of other psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety, may increase the reinforcing effects of drugs. This combination of addiction and other mental disorders is known as dual diagnosis, and requires specialized treatment.

Why do people take drugs?

Various factors explain the onset of drug use:

  • For pleasure. Drugs act directly on the reward system or for gratification, generating an intense feeling of pleasure. In some cases, such as stimulant use, this euphoria is followed by feelings of power, confidence and energy. On the other hand, with opiates, the euphoria is followed by feelings of relaxation, tranquility and wellbeing.
  • To self-medicate. Some people start abusing drugs in order to reduce feelings of distress, anxiety or sadness. Most notably stress may play an important role in determining if someone starts or continues to abuse drugs, and in any relapse in patients who are recovering from addiction.
  • To improve performance. The need some people feel to enhance their intellectual performance, improving attention, concentration or memory with chemicals may play a similar role in initial experimentation and continued drug use.
  • For the experience or “because everyone else does.”. The pressure exerted by others in the social environment on the individual has a strong influence on their behavior. This influence is particularly strong during adolescence, the stage during which the pre-frontal brain cortex, the area responsible for situation assessment, is still maturing, which increases the risk of making bad decisions, such as drugs.

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