Most people don’t truly understand addiction. They see an unhealthy dependence on drugs or alcohol, and mistakenly think addicted individuals lack willpower or have some kind of moral failing. Most don’t understand why an addict can’t just stop using.
The truth is addiction is a complex brain disease. This means quitting takes more than just good intentions or the will to do so. Long-term drug use or alcoholism changes your brain’s chemistry, which makes quitting incredibly hard, even when the addict is ready to pursue recovery.
Today, research has allowed us to know more than ever about the science of addiction and how addiction impacts the brain. This has lead to the development of effective rehabilitation treatments that help people recover what they’ve lost and lead healthy, productive lives.
How Addiction Works
The study of addictive behaviors began in the 1930s. However, people addicted to drugs were seen as morally flawed, which shaped how society responded to drug use, punishing rather than providing treatment. Thanks to scientific research, our views and responses to addiction have changed dramatically in recent years.
We know addiction is a medical disorder that affects the brain and its chemistry, impacting a drug addict’s behavior. Drug-seeking becomes a compulsive urge, difficult to control despite its devastating consequences.
While the initial choice to take drugs may be voluntary for most, a variety of factors put individuals at risk for addiction. The more risk factors someone has, the greater the chance they’ll develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
- Heredity: Genetics accounts for about half of a person’s risk for developing an addiction. Other biological dangers include gender, ethnicity and mental health disorders.
- Environment: Family, friends, socioeconomic status and even overall quality of life contribute to the development of an addiction. A person’s likelihood of addiction increases due to peer pressure, abuse, exposure to drugs and alcohol early on, stress and so much more.
- Development: The earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it is that someone will become addicted. Teens who experiment with drugs and alcohol are particularly at risk because their brain is still developing and may be especially prone to taking part in risky behaviors.
Drugs and the Brain
Addiction becomes more than a poor choice to those who have a substance use disorder — it becomes a physical and chemical process in the body.
Drugs and alcohol have a direct impact on the brain’s reward circuitry. Taking these substances floods your brain with the chemical messenger dopamine, producing feelings of euphoria. The reward system is a biological function that motivates you to repeat behaviors needed to survive and thrive, such as eating, exercise and even spending time with your loved ones.
Drugs and alcohol send surges of dopamine, reinforcing this pleasurable but unhealthy behavior. This is why addicts feel compelled to use drugs or alcohol over and over again. After a while, the brain adapts to drug or alcohol use, reducing its reward response. An addict must then use more drugs to feel the same initial effects. This tolerance often causes a person to feel less pleasure from other things they used to enjoy, such as social activities, food or sex.
Long-term drug addiction changes the brain’s chemistry in a variety of ways, impacting many different functions, including:
- Decision making
- Stress response
- And more
Sadly, harmful addiction and brain disease outcomes make it incredibly hard to stop using drugs or alcohol.
Addiction Medicine That Works
Knowing that addiction is a health problem should give you hope. There is effective, life-saving treatment available which can help you take back your life.
At Gateway, we specialize in evidence-based addiction medicine that focuses on a holistic approach to recovery. When you partner with us for your rehabilitation treatment, you’ll find compassionate medical professionals committed to your care. We understand the nature of addiction and will work with you to find hope and healing. Contact us today to learn more.