Updated on 01/25/24

Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed.

Drugs have been around for thousands of years. This means that drug use, misuse and abuse have also been around for thousands of years. Throughout time, people have turned to drug use for a variety of different reasons. To gain a better understanding of why people use drugs, it is important to know all of the different types of drugs that exist.

For example, the term “drug” does not only describe hard drugs like heroin or cocaine but also the caffeine in your morning coffee. That being said, society neglects to frame the typical coffee drinker as a “drug user” because that term is typically associated with people that act out at the cost of their addiction or other mental health conditions.

Society must work to have a better understanding of what drugs are, why people use them and why there is always such a negative connotation used toward the people who use them.

What Are Drugs?

The term “drug” defines any chemical substance that alters a part of your physical, mental or emotional functioning. It changes your physical or mental state, typically affecting your senses, behavior or thought/cognitive processes.

Some drugs are medicines that help prevent, treat or cure painful symptoms. There are over-the-counter medicines that you can buy without a doctor’s prescription that provide pain and allergy relief. There are also prescription medicines that vary in uses, such as:

  • Relieving chronic pain (opioids)
  • Relieving symptoms of crippling anxiety or depression (anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants)
  • Providing greater concentration and focus (stimulants)

There are many general categories of drugs. These categories help to group substances together by how they affect the brain and body. These categories include:

  • Stimulants
  • Inhalants
  • Cannabinoids
  • Depressants
  • Opioids
  • Steroids
  • Hallucinogens

Understanding Drug Use, Misuse and Abuse

Drug use is pretty straightforward; it is the use of chemical substances with the intent to experience a change in one’s mental or physical state. Drug misuse is when a person uses a drug differently than how it is meant to be administered. Drug misuse is typically associated with prescription medications.

Examples of drug misuse might include:

  • Taking the incorrect dose
  • Taking a drug for a reason other than its intended purpose
  • Stopping the use of a drug without medical approval
  • Taking the drug at the wrong time
  • Taking a drug that was not prescribed to you

Drug abuse, similarly, is when people use drugs to get high or to inflict self-harm. It could be the use of a medication without a prescription or with intent to experience the feelings that the drug produces. Both drug misuse and abuse can lead to the development of substance use disorder (SUD) or other adverse health effects.

Reasons That People Use Drugs

There are four main reasons why people use drugs: to feel good, to feel better, to do better and to ease curiosity.

#1. Some people use drugs to feel good. All drugs have the ability to induce intense feelings of pleasure, much more intense than any pleasure that can be experienced naturally. The euphoric feelings are caused by surges of dopamine in the brain. Although every drug produces these feelings of reward differently, the brain remembers how the substance influences the brain and body.

#2. Some people use drugs to feel better. This tends to be why people become addicted to alcohol — because they initially use it as a form of self-medication for feelings of stress, anxiety or depression. Perceived stress is a significant risk factor in why people start to use drugs or become addicted later in life.

3. Some people use drugs to do better. For example, anti-anxiety medications can relieve crippling anxiety symptoms just enough that a person is able to function socially with others. Some drugs help improve focus, concentration and endurance.

4. Some people use drugs because they are curious. Teenagers and young adults are at the highest risk for getting involved with drugs because they are the most curious and motivated to explore different drug effects.

Reasons for Drug Use Can Determine Potential to Become Addicted

The first few times a person uses a drug, they are likely to perceive positive effects. Over time and with more frequent substance use, the brain recognizes the pleasure of drug use to outweigh any other previous experiences of pleasure.

Many people believe that addiction is a choice. While the initial decision to use substances may be a choice, repetitive use of substances causes complex abnormalities in the brain’s reward center, which then motivates drug-seeking behavior. Drug use impairs a person’s self-control, which is the hallmark of addiction.

If a person takes a drug frequently or at high quantities, the mind and body will find a new sense of normal being under the influence of that substance. Eventually, the brain seeks out the drug because it is trying to feel that newfound sense of normal.

It is important to understand the risks associated with even the slightest experiences of substance use because even the most moderate drug use can pose significant danger and harm to a person’s mental and physical well-being.

PaRC (Prevention and Recovery Center) is a drug and alcohol treatment program for teens, young adults and adults that are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. We understand that addiction impairs all areas of functioning, making recovery seem unachievable. To learn more about the treatment programs we offer, or for more about why people use drugs, call PaRC (713) 939-7272.