By David Heitz
When talking about addiction, it is extremely important to remember that everyone is different. It gets to the very heart of an important truth: There is no “one-size-fits-all” in addiction treatment, and no one path to sobriety.
It’s why new and innovative approaches – such as surf and sand therapy and other effective treatments – are so badly needed.
People reach for different substances for different reasons. In fact, about half of all people suffering from addiction also suffer from some former of mental illness. Many argue that number is much higher.
Mental illness, sadly, is a stigmatizing term. Mental illness can refer to PTSD, anxiety and depression, for example. Most often, people suffering from these mental disorders have been victims.
Whether they have grown up with narcissists, been the victim of violent crimes, or any other triggering event, people suffering from mental disorders are not to blame for what is going on inside their head.
People abuse whatever substance makes them feel better, be it a pick-me-up or a bring-me-down. And with everyone’s chemistry being different, it’s difficult to say which substances will prove addictive to whom.
But we know certain substances affect the brain in such ways that regular use inevitably will lead to addiction. Here’s a list of 10 of those dangerous substances.
Crystal meth and other methamphetamines
While the country’s opioid epidemic has pushed headlines about crystal meth to pages deep inside the newspaper, crystal meth remains a dangerous beast.
Research has shown that crystal meth’s impact on the brain can make an addict out of just one “bump,” or just one “line.”
The National Institute of Drug Abuse explains it this way. “Although both methamphetamine and cocaine increase levels of dopamine, administration of methamphetamine in animal studies leads to much higher levels of dopamine, because nerve cells respond differently to the two drugs.
“Cocaine prolongs dopamine actions in the brain by blocking the re-absorption (re-uptake) of the neurotransmitter by signaling nerve cells. At low doses, methamphetamine also blocks the re-uptake of dopamine, but it also increases the release of dopamine, leading to much higher concentrations in the synapse (the gap between neurons), which can be toxic to nerve terminals.”1
In other words, long-term use can cause brain damage.
This needs very little explanation. Simply look at the headlines.
The evil in heroin is that most people become addicted to it after first becoming addicted to painkillers, often prescribed by doctors.
Sliding down the opioid slope is so easy because users fast develop a physical dependence to the drug. That dependence is so intense that when those who have become addicted stop usage, they become physically ill and even can die.
And we know they are dying. Almost 100 deaths every day in our nation.
When even heroin isn’t doing it for an opioid addict anymore, they may begin to use another opioid called fentanyl. Fentanyl is given to dying cancer patients in extreme pain.
Often referred to as “oxy,” this once commonly prescribed painkiller opioid traditionally leads those who become addicted to heroin and fentanyl. OxyContin is a true gateway drug, even when prescribed by doctors.
Until the opioid epidemic (and the crystal meth epidemic before that) essentially sidelined the government’s battle against cocaine, coke was concerned addiction enemy No. 1.
For many years, campaigns railed against crack cocaine. At one point, a government slogan declared, “Crack is whack. Meth is death.”
The truth is, cocaine is death, too. In fact, according to 2014 numbers provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cocaine was one of the top five most common drugs leading to overdose.
Sometimes we forget that nicotine is a drug. Numbers don’t lie: Perhaps nicotine is the most addictive drug on the planet.
While people generally don’t overdose on nicotine, there is not a commonly abused substance anywhere with more research showing its deadly effects.
And people still smoke cigarettes, even when they become repulsed by them.
The impact of cigarettes on the brain makes nicotine hard to beat.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains nicotine addiction this way:
“When you use tobacco products, nicotine is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream. Within 10 seconds of entering your body, the nicotine reaches your brain. It causes the brain to release adrenaline, creating a buzz of pleasure and energy.”
“The buzz fades quickly though, and leaves you feeling tired, a little down, and wanting the buzz again. This feeling is what makes you light up the next cigarette. Since your body is able to build up a high tolerance to nicotine, you’ll need to smoke more and more cigarettes in order to get the nicotine’s pleasurable effects and prevent withdrawal symptoms.” 2
Adderall and other prescription stimulants
Adderall is an amphetamine, the key ingredient in crystal meth. Except Adderall is commonly prescribed by doctors in the treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder.
Sadly, an entire generation of young people has grown up medicated with Adderall. Now they’re addicted.
Writes one New York Times Magazine writer once hooked on Adderall:
“To date, there is almost no research on the long-term effects on humans of using Adderall. In a sense, then, we are the walking experiment, those of us around my age who first got involved with this drug in high school or college when it was suddenly everywhere and then did not manage to get off it for years afterward — if we got off it at all.”
“We are living out what it might mean, both psychologically and neurologically, to take a powerful drug we do not need over long stretches of time. Sometimes I think of us as Generation Adderall.” 3
The writer finally did get off Adderall, but only after years and years of misery, and with the help of a psychiatrist.
Just because it seems like everybody drinks alcohol, it still is dangerous and addictive.
Any alcoholic will tell you that.
Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S. Alcohol poisonings have skyrocketed in recent years.
Benzodiazepines (anxiety medication)
Benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety, have the same effects on the brain as alcohol. While a doctor may feel they have no choice but to treat an explosively angry person (people with PTSD, for example) with Xanax, Ativan and the like, it’s extraordinarily risky. It’s even risker for people who are alcoholics or are in recovery.
Even informed medical cannabis patients finding great relief from the plant will admit it can be addictive. But unlike other substances, there never has been a recorded case of marijuana overdose. Increasingly, research is showing cannabis helps people.
However, there are those who become addicted to marijuana. Some people really do become the stereotypical, unmotivated “stoner” who doesn’t want to do anything.
People who become addicted to cannabis are no different from people who become addicted to any substance – they are seeking relief from their troubles.
Remember, addiction is defined by the medical establishment as a dependence to a substance that interferes with your life. Usage does not always equal addiction.
1. Methamphetamine. (2013, September). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved Sept. 22, 2017, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/how-methamphetamine-different-other-stimulants-such-cocaine
2. Nicotine and your health. (Undated). BeTobaccoFree.Gov. Retrieved Sept. 22, 2107, from
3. Schwartz, C. Generation Adderall. (2016, Oct. 12). The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved Sept. 22, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/magazine/generation-adderall-addiction.html