image of Understanding Prescription Drugs

Understanding Prescription Drug Addiction

Today, doctors are prescribing more medications than ever before, causing a major rise in prescription drug addiction. They may seem safe because they’re given out by trusted sources. However, they seriously alter your brain chemistry and can quickly lead to dependency or addiction. And when you do decide to quit, dealing with withdrawal can be an intimidating prospect.

Because pill addiction is easy to hide compared to other substances, many people struggle with it silently. And because these medications are prescribed by doctors, taking them can seem far more harmless than street drugs. But the truth is that drugs like opioids, benzos and stimulants can be equally dangerous. 

The good news is that, while it may not feel like it, recovery is completely within your reach. Holistic addiction treatment can help ease your symptoms and address what’s causing this pattern in the first place. This powerful recovery journey can unlock a new relationship with yourself, so you can live your best possible life. 

How Prescription Medications Can Go From Helpful to Unhealthy

An estimated 16 million people misuse prescription medications every year. In fact, they’re the third most commonly abused substance behind alcohol and marijuana in the US. It’s a growing problem for millions of people and their loved ones.

A major part of the crisis is the abuse of prescription opioid pain relievers. It’s gotten to be such a large problem that in 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency. It’s estimated that nearly 2 million people struggle with prescription opioid misuse each year. About 25% of people who take opioids for chronic pain eventually abuse them. And that can lead to chronic health issues, fatal overdoses and more. 

While the public’s focus has been on the opioid epidemic, a variety of other prescription drugs also pose a huge issue. From smart drugs to sleep medications, a concerning number of Americans regularly use prescription drugs that are known to be addictive. About half of the population currently takes at least one prescription drug. And 25% of the population uses three or more.

How Do Pill Addictions Start?

This type of drug addiction starts where you wouldn’t expect: doctors’ offices and pharmacies. Doctors now prescribe more medications, without as much use of natural therapies for medical issues. Almost 70% of visits to a physician’s office now involve drug therapy

Not surprisingly, the drugs doctors prescribe more of are the ones behind most pill addictions. Prescriptions have skyrocketed in recent decades — these include stimulants for ADHD, sedatives for sleep and anxiety, and opioids for pain. 

Not everyone who takes prescription medications develops an addiction. Some people are more likely to do so than others, depending on certain risk factors. 

Risk factors for prescription drug addiction include:

Because these drugs are prescribed by trusted sources, people aren’t as likely to be on alert for signs of addiction. But the truth is that they cause significant changes in the brain. 

How Does Pill Addiction Work?

Taking a prescribed medication can quickly spiral into addiction simply from the physical effects they have on your brain. 

Some people start using their prescriptions to self-medicate other issues. For example, if you take medication for sleep issues, you might also use it to relieve symptoms of untreated anxiety. Soon you’re taking the drug throughout the day and night to treat two very real problems, without much control. 

Some other common reasons for prescription drug abuse are:

  • Relieving physical (especially chronic) pain
  • For relaxation
  • To control or numb emotions
  • Managing the effects of other drugs (prescribed or not)
  • To help with focus or productivity 
  • As a sleep aid 
  • Weight loss
  • Avoiding withdrawal symptoms
  • To feel good 

Taking medications even as prescribed can lead to dependence. But the risk of addiction is even greater if you take more than prescribed, or use them for reasons other than what they’re intended for.  

How Proper Use of Prescription Drugs Can Lead to Addiction

One of the scariest things about pill addiction is that it can start by following your doctor’s orders. Some prescription drugs are so physically addictive that dependence can develop even when you take them carefully. 

For some people, it begins when a doctor decides to stop writing a prescription without a weaning off period, sending them into withdrawal. One former Sanctuary client talks about how her opioid prescription led to kratom addiction: “I had severe chronic neck and back pain and [I was prescribed opiate pain medications for that pain, which I eventually became addicted to.” This addiction lasted for years. What started as prescribed use for a very real issue quickly turned into a much bigger problem.

Prescription drugs physically change your brain. It’s not a matter of being “stronger” or “better” than addiction. It’s a physical reality.

Physical Dependence  

The reason so many people become addicted to their medications, especially if they’re taking them for a long time, is because of how dependence naturally develops. 

Taking a substance over time increases your tolerance. That is, you have to take more and more of it to achieve the same results. Eventually, continued use is more of a necessity than a choice. You might rely on the medication to avoid withdrawal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and body aches that happen when you try to quit. 

Certain medications like opioids and stimulants are also addictive because of their effect on dopamine production. The dopamine surge they induce is initially what makes you feel good, but ultimately what leads to withdrawals. As it adapts to this, your brain makes less of its own pleasure chemicals. And this makes it very hard to feel good when you’re not using. 

Psychological Addiction  

It’s also surprisingly easy to become psychologically dependent on prescribed medications. Psychological dependence comes from the deep attachments we form with the drugs. 

No one sets out to form an addiction — we use drugs to feel good. Despite its negative consequences, there’s a reason this substance has become a regular part of your life. Positive associations can look like remembering the pleasure it once gave you. You might feel relief from hypervigilance caused by trauma. These experiences can form a strong association of the drug with positive feelings. 

You can also become psychologically dependent by using prescription drugs to cope with stress or trauma. Maybe you noticed that a post-op pain medication made it easier for you to deal with stress at work. Then, taking it becomes part of your pre-work routine. Suddenly, it’s difficult to deal with any stress at all without the drug, even if it’s just choosing what to eat for lunch.   

These temporary fixes work until they don’t. They might feel good in the moment, but using substances to paper over problems only prevents us from learning real coping skills. And this eventually makes us feel deeply dissatisfied. Because you can’t change, learn, grow, be creative and productive, or otherwise fulfill your purpose on this planet with addiction consuming your life.  

The Most Addictive Prescription Drugs 

The opioid epidemic that started in the ‘90s shifted most of the public attention to opioid addiction. But the reality is that a number of other drugs are commonly overprescribed and pose a real threat to our collective health.  

The prescription drugs that are most commonly abused are:

  • Depressants:
    • Barbiturates like Amytal and Nembutal 
    • Benzodiazepines like Ativan, Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin
    • Sleep Medications like Ambien and Lunesta
  • Opioids:
    • Codeine like Robitussin A-C and Tylenol with Codeine
    • Morphine like Roxanol and Duramorph
    • Methadone like Methadose and Dolophine
    • Fentanyl and analogs like Actiq and Sublimaze
    • Oxycodone HCL like OxyContin and Percocet
    • Hydrocodone like Vicodin and Lorcet
    • Oxymorphone like Opana
    • Meperidine like Demerol and Meperitab
    • Propoxyphene like Darvon
  • Stimulants:
    • Amphetamines like Adderall and Dexedrine 
    • Methylphenidate like Ritalin and Concerta
  • Dextromethorphan found in some over-the-counter cough and cold medicines

While these are the most commonly abused prescription drugs, any substance or behavior can be addictive when used as a coping method.

Signs and Symptoms of Pill Addiction

Because pill addictions typically start with a prescription, it can be hard to tell when it’s becoming a problem. But paying attention to certain signs can help. These include:

  1. Taking other people’s prescriptions 
  2. Increasing your dosage or frequency without a doctor’s orders
  3. Anxiety around your usage and supply
  4. Visiting different doctors or pharmacies for more medications (known as “doctor shopping”)
  5. No interest in treatments outside of drug therapy 
  6. Ongoing complaints of vague symptoms to get more medication
  7. Overmedicating or taking more than prescribed
  8. Using medications for reasons they weren’t prescribed for
  9. Resisting or ignoring your doctor’s recommendation to lower dosage or stop use
  10. Using medications as your go-to to cope with stress

Symptoms of pill addiction include: 

  1. Mood swings
  2. Sleep problems
  3. Depression
  4. Anxiety
  5. Agitation and restlessness
  6. Concentration issues
  7. Low tolerance for frustration or discomfort
  8. Sensitivity to stress
  9. Low energy and motivation
  10. Intense, inappropriate reactions
  11. Feelings of numbness

How to Talk to a Loved One About Their Prescription Drug Addiction 

Many people with pill addiction struggle in silence because it’s an easier addiction to hide. Their drug of choice is prescribed by doctors, so there’s not the same social stigma against the actual drug. This makes it even more important for loved ones to monitor use, so it doesn’t quietly slip from prescribed use to abuse. 

Some signs your loved one may be struggling with pill addiction are:

  • Prescriptions missing from your home
  • Doctor shopping
  • Performance issues at school or work
  • Sudden changes in personality 
  • Early refills 
  • Agitation when discussing possible misuse
  • Less passion for life and hobbies

Finding out that your loved one might have a pill addiction can be scary and overwhelming. But it’s important to start the conversation with them and know that you can get support for this

Shame is a huge part of addiction, and your loved one might be defensive. But you can be clear and direct while remaining calm. Share your feelings and observations with specific examples of behaviors you find concerning. 

Many people struggling with pill addiction have tried to quit on their own unsuccessfully, or don’t know where to start in the first place. That’s where you can provide the most help. Come to the conversation prepared with information on what’s happening, how they can treat their addiction, and how you plan to support them. 

Listening and giving your loved one space to respond is just as important as sharing how you feel. Be prepared for denial, or dishonesty. And set clear boundaries about communication. 

It’s also important to understand where they’re coming from. Keep in mind that your loved one might feel overwhelmed and scared themselves. And most likely, they’re using drugs to cope with trauma, stress, or other wounds that lie below the surface

So remind them that this isn’t a value judgment. Addiction is not a sign of weakness or failure. It’s reality that happens to a lot of people, and a lot of those people recover from it. And your loved one can too.  

Progress is a process — even after a productive conversation, they may not want to start treatment right away. It often takes more planning, and rehab admissions staff are happy to help with this. It’s also important to note that detoxing from prescriptions medications on your own is extremely dangerous. Your admissions team can help you get a medical assessment to determine if your loved one needs medically supervised detox before beginning treatment. 

How You Can Recover From Pill Addiction

We at The Sanctuary know you can overcome your prescription medication addiction. Addiction reaches into every part of life. Our holistic non-12-Step program allows you to approach every aspect of addiction in an integrative way. 

To heal completely from your addiction, we:

  • Get to the root of your addiction and why you’re self-soothing in the first place
  • Help you identify and resolve your traumas, so you can move past them in a healthy way
  • Teach you to recognize patterns and behaviors that led to your addiction 
  • Empower you to discover your life’s purpose and reconnect with yourself without drugs
  • Guide you towards healthier coping strategies so you feel more confident to handle life’s challenges

We do this through one-on-one therapy, group sessions, nature-based activities on our beautiful 22-acre property in Sedona, bodywork therapy, energy medicine, nutrition programs, and more. Our program is fully personalized. 

You are the master, not the victim, of your body and mind. And here, you’ll gain experience with a wide range of therapies so you can decide what works best for you.

A life beyond pill addiction is within your reach. Contact us to take the first step on your recovery journey today.

He is the Founder, Administrator, Counselor at the Sanctuary at Sedona.

He has a BA in Political Science and is currently Senior teaching staff at Four Winds Society, an international school of energy medicine. His credentials also include being an Ordained Minister; a Certified Shamanic Breathwork® Facilitator; a Founding Member Society for Shamanic Practitioners; a Member of Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology; a Member of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. [email protected]