This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on what is meant by “addicted.” If we’re talking about physical dependence, meaning that once you have been using a drug for some time and then try to stop, you experience withdrawal symptoms, that depends on the substance really.
There is another nuanced definition to actual addiction: the continual use of alcohol and other drugs despite negative consequences. The difference is that someone who is physically dependent will eventually endure the painful and sometimes frightening withdrawal symptoms in the face of the consequences of their continued use. Someone who is addicted may come to a point that they actually want to stop but find that they simply cannot.
Science and Addiction
The human brain is an extraordinarily complex network made up of billions of cells that govern our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and drives. Our brains reward certain behaviors such as eating or having sex —registering these as pleasurable activities that we want to repeat. Drug addiction taps into these vital mechanisms geared for our survival. And although not a life necessity, to an addicted person, drugs become life itself, driving the compulsive use of drugs—even in the face of dire life consequences—that is the essence of addiction.
Like many other diseases, vulnerability to addiction is influenced by multiple factors, with genetic, environmental, and developmental factors all contributing. Genetics accounts for approximately half of an individual’s vulnerability to addiction, including the effects of the environment on gene function and expression. Elements of our social environments—culture, neighborhoods, schools, families, peer groups— can also greatly influence individual choices and decisions about behaviors related to substance abuse, which can in turn affect vulnerability. In fact, environmental variables such as stress or drug exposure can cause lasting changes to genes and their function, which can result in long-term changes to brain circuits.
Genes may also mitigate the effects of environment—which is why, for example, two substance-abusing individuals growing up in the same high-risk environment may have very different outcomes.
“Use it once, it might let you go. Use it twice, it owns your soul.”
In the early stage of addiction, there is a process called ‘sensitization,’ in which the brain becomes more sensitive to a substance, more responsive to it, and each dose seems to work better and faster than before. You have heard about tolerance, the process in which it takes more drug to get high each time, and they equate that with addiction.
Since they are experiencing the opposite – each high seems better than before and it takes less drug to reach intoxication, they think they must not be addicted. And yet they are using drugs more regularly, habitually, and even compulsively, feeling intense desire for it. They are addicted already, can’t quit using without some help, but they think everything is just fine.
So, how long does it take to become addicted?
Even though the first time a person takes a drug, it is often by choice, we now know from a large body of research that this ability to choose can be affected by drugs. And when addiction takes hold in the brain, it disrupts a person’s ability to exert control over behavior— reflecting the compulsive nature of the disease of addiction.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction please call toll free 1-800-951-6135