Addiction is a serious issue that many people in the United States are dealing with, whether it be with themselves or a loved one. In the 1930s, doctors and medical professionals thought addiction was the result of amoral and deviant personalities but now recognize it as a disease. In their eyes, the people who became addicted to substances simply lacked the moral judgment and willpower to quit. The solution at the time was to punish the users or attempt to force them to break their habit. But luckily, after years of research, the scientific community has now seen the effects that drugs have on the actual chemistry of the brain. It was a relief, but at the same time, it became clear that addiction could take hold upon anyone and everyone — no one was safe.
Despite this, many people still believe that addiction is a choice, and those who suffer from substance abuse are simply choosing to continue to use a substance or engage in an activity because they want to. In this article, we will discuss how addiction starts and why it is so difficult to get clean.
How Addiction Forms
Studies show that addiction is a chronic illness that forms due to gradual changes in the chemistry of one’s brain. It does not occur because of an individual’s weakness or unwillingness to change, but rather the harmful substance convincing the brain that it needs to continue receiving the substance to function.
Drinking or smoking for the first time is voluntary, and it is around this time that a person can still control their action and use. However, the more they take alcohol and drugs, the more dependent they become on the substance. In addition, they may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms if they do not regularly consume the drug, and thus begin to desperately seek it out just to stop the uncomfortable feelings of withdrawal. The more they take illicit substances over time, the more progressive the changes in the brain become. When this happens, it becomes extremely difficult for individuals to just stop using, as their brain is now dependent on the substance to function normally.
This Disease Effects on the Brain
Drugs disrupt the brain’s natural communication process by changing the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Addictive drugs and certain activities are so pleasurable to us because they flood the brain’s reward system with the “happy” chemical dopamine in a short amount of time, something that we cannot get via the natural process of the neurons. Meanwhile, the hippocampus stores this information as pleasurable memories and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli.
Recent research suggests that dopamine not only contributes to the pleasure one feels when under the influence of a substance, but it also affects learning and memory, which play key roles in the transition from simply enjoying something to actually being addicted to it. The most widely accepted current theory about how addiction works, states that dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s reward-related learning system. Addictive substances stimulate that circuit and overload it, which repeats every time the person uses. This causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for planning and executing actions) to transform liking something into wanting it. This, of course, is what leads to the intense desire to chase after and continue using whatever originally caused this connection to be made in our brains, manifesting as what we know as addiction.
This is why many addicts use drugs and alcohol for long periods appear to be lifeless, unmotivated, depressed and express their lack of pleasure in the things that they once enjoyed. In an effort to fix this feeling, they tend to increase the dose of their substance intake, which of course only puts a bandaid over the underlying issue. This vicious cycle of the need to take in drugs to increase the brain’s dopamine levels and continuing to up the dose contribute to long term tolerance. And the more tolerance a user builds, the more susceptible they become to overdosing.
The Causes of Drug Addiction
Truth is, there is not one singular cause of addiction because people use drugs for many reasons. This is also the reason why not all drug addicts benefit from the same kind of treatment. Some may use drugs to hide pain, self-medicate, or simply out of curiosity. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are four main reasons why people use or try illicit substances:
- To make them feel good – since drugs can result in increased energy, relaxation, confidence and euphoria, many people are attracted to this possibility and curious to experience these effects for themselves.
- To feel better – stress, low-self esteem, depression, and anxiety are all thieves of joy in a person’s life, which is why some people turn to drugs in order to free themselves of their emotional burdens.
- To do better or enhance their abilities – there are plenty of drugs that enhance performance in sports or academics. Some people may feel stressed and overwhelmed with the immense pressure to perform, whether it be in their sport or in school. They may feel that they cannot keep up with their peers, or they want to be the best at what they do. Taking drugs that can increase their speed, strength, memory retention and their capacity as an athlete or academic is a very attractive idea.
- To fit in with their peers – drug use is popular among young adults because of the desire to fit in and make friends. These individuals want to impress their peers, and often believe that this can be achieved through drug use and underage drinking
Once a person feels good about their first experience with drugs, the foundations of becoming an addict are set. While not everyone responds the same way, many experts believe that nature vs. nurture plays an important role in determining if someone will become an addict in the future. They believe that the environment and biology of an individual can deeply influence how these substances impact the life of a person and their susceptibility to developing a substance abuse issue or addiction in the future.
How Can This Disease Be Treated?
There are plenty of ways to treat addiction, and the very first step to recovery is recognizing that you have a problem. Recovery is only hindered when you remain in denial and do not acknowledge and understand the harmful effects of substance abuse.
The moment you decide to seek treatment, a health care professional will then conduct an assessment of the symptoms you are experiencing to see if there is a formal diagnosis to be made. Understand that addiction can affect your life in many areas, so you can and should receive a combination of treatments.
Medications also play an important role in controlling your drug cravings and treating underlying mental illness. They also help relieve the symptoms of withdrawal, which can be very uncomfortable when you’re in the first stages of recovery. Therapy helps individuals to understand their own motivations and behavior, deal with stress, and teach them the skills they need to cope without the use of drugs. Treatment can also include hospitalization (if the case is severe), living in a sober house or therapeutic community, as well as outpatient programs. There are also self-help groups that you can join like the AA or Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which help individuals and their families cope with the situation.
Addiction is a disease, but like most diseases, it can be treated. With the right program and consistent therapy, as well as support from loved ones, you too can recover!
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