Calgary Dream Centre
4510 Macleod Trail SW Calgary AB T2G 0A4 (403) 243-5598

Understanding Addiction: A Look at How Addiction Begins & How to Address It

No one starts out in life deciding they are going to end up addicted. Even people who grow up in difficult or destructive environments often swear that they are never going to end up like their parents, and are confident that they have the willpower to stay sober.

Unfortunately, children who grow up in environments where drugs and alcohol are found are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder, and children who abuse drugs in late childhood or early adolescence are more likely to escalate their drug or alcohol use as they age.

So what makes someone more likely to become addicted? Research has shown that biology plays a role in addiction, as do mental health disorders, and environmental factors.

Mental Health and Addiction

Mental health disorders and addiction are closely linked. According to Health Canada and Statistics Canada, in 2012 37.8% of Albertans aged 15 and older who had lifetime mood or anxiety disorders (including major depressive episode, bipolar I, bipolar II, and hypomania) also had a lifetime substance abuse disorder.

Many individuals with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression may use alcohol or drugs to self medicate their mental health problems, using addictive substances to ease their symptoms, cope with difficult emotions, or temporarily alter their mood, especially if they are not receiving the proper mental health care and treatment. Unfortunately, addictive substances have many side effects, and over time they not only stop easing symptoms but actually make the symptoms worse.

Even if a patient is able to get help to improve their mental health substance abuse can interact with prescription medications such as anti-anxiety pills, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers. This reaction reduces the effectiveness of the medications and makes them less effective at managing symptoms.

Substance abuse can also increase your chances of developing a mental disorder. Mental disorders are caused by a variety of factors including genetics and the environment. Individuals who are at risk of developing a mental disorder may be pushed over the edge if they begin abusing alcohol or drugs.

Environmental Factors

Our environment also plays a role in the development of addiction. Difficult or destructive environments, such as chaos or abuse at home, can push us to escape using drugs or alcohol. The attitude towards drugs and alcohol in our community or family, as well as peer influence, and poor performance in school can also push us to seek out harmful substances and make it easier for us to obtain these substances.

The Biology of Addiction

There is a persistent myth that substance abuse is rooted in individual choice and free will. However, at its core addiction is rooted in biology. While outside factors can push someone towards addictive substances, and environmental factors can make addictive substances available, drugs and alcohol produce chemical changes in our brains that make it increasingly difficult to act on the desire to quit.

Addiction is directly linked to the speed at which the brain releases dopamine, the intensity of that release, and how reliable that release is. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that our brains use as messengers to help transmit nerve impulses between different cells in the brain.

Dopamine and Addiction

Dopamine not only makes us feel good: it also plays a role in learning and memory, which is part of the reason we can go from liking something to becoming addicted to it.

Dopamine works with another neurotransmitter called glutamate to take over the brain’s reward related learning system, which is what rewards us when we do things that are necessary for survival, such as eating. Addictive substances stimulate this system and then overload it. Repeated exposure to addictive substances alters the way our brain process the input from the addictive substance in such a way that we go from liking the substance to wanting it. This, in turn, compels us to seek out the substance or behaviour we are addicted to.

Over time, the brains of individuals with addictions become less able to resist addictive substances.

Drugs and alcohol also make us feel good, at least for a short time, and our brains are wired to drive us to repeat behaviours that make us feel good. Unfortunately, over time we require more of the same substance to achieve that same level of happiness, and can even begin to feel unwell or unhappy when we deprive ourselves of the substance being abused.

Though it takes a lot of work to wean our brains, and our bodies, off of addictive substances, it can be done if we make it much more difficult for ourselves to access the substances we were abusing.

To truly be free of addiction someone must both remove themselves from situations that make it easy for them to obtain the substance they have been abusing, determine what caused them to begin abusing drugs or alcohol in the first place, and create an actionable plan to help them get the support they need.

Addressing Addiction

Addiction and recovery programs can provide individuals struggling with substance abuse with the support they need to address the roots of their substance abuse, remove the temptation of drugs and alcohol, help ensure basic needs such as housing and food are met both in the long term and the short term, and help vulnerable individuals create a strong support network that they can continue to rely on even once the official program has ended.

Even the longest journey begins with just one step, and the Calgary Dream Centre will be with you every step of the way.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, the Calgary Dream Centre is here to help. We offer a compassionate and judgement free environment with programs that are tailored to suit your needs and situation.

For more information about our programs, or to connect with one of our team members, please visit our website. We also offer walk-in intakes every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 8 am to noon.


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  • Written by Chris Sciberras

    Director of Program and Mental Health Clinician Chris is a Registered Provisional Psychologist with a Masters of Counselling from the University of Calgary and a Bachelors of Counselling from the Australian College of Applied Psychology. For the past decade, he has worked extensively with youth, adults, and families in a variety of capacities, with a focus on mental well-being and addiction recovery. Chris has served as the Mental Health Clinician and Program Director at the Calgary Dream Centre since 2017. Prior to joining the Dream Centre, Chris worked in the school system as a Mental Health Counsellor. Chris is passionate about supporting clients at the Dream Centre and helping them along their path of recovery. Chris is originally from Australia, has travelled to over 30 countries, and now happily calls Calgary home.

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