Addiction is a complicated disease. It can affect anyone, yet there is a wide misunderstanding of how it affects the individuals involved. Misconceptions about addiction often come from those who believe drug addiction is a choice—something that demonstrates low morality or a lack of willpower. In actual fact, addiction is much more than a simple choice to continue to use a substance.
The disease of addiction is characterized by a loss of control over a substance, beginning with chemical changes to the nervous system that alter how it registers emotions and new information, and resulting in a neurological dependence. After addiction has thoroughly affected the individual, quitting the substance is a much more challenging feat than just deciding not to indulge in its usage. However, stopping addiction is possible. The road to a healthier lifestyle seldom happens overnight or without hiccups along the way, but modern treatment means overcoming substance abuse is manageable.
Acknowledging one’s own addiction is the first step towards recovery.
One thing must be acknowledged about addiction to understand its potency: addiction is not solely a byproduct of hard drugs. An estimated two thirds of the 23 million people who have an addiction in the United States pursue alcohol abuse as opposed to illegal drugs. Additionally, scientists have noted that seemingly innocuous activities like gambling, sex, and shopping have induced a similar level of activity to traditional addiction in the brain.
Therefore, the steps to any form of addiction are primarily characterized by the following:
A number of factors may influence certain people to be affected by addiction. Some individuals may be predisposed to becoming addicted, and while no one factor may determine if an individual is more likely, a number of factors may increase the risk. Factors include:
Addictive drugs utterly change how the user goes about their life. All drugs—ranging from nicotine to opioids—work by changing the brain’s perception of pleasure over time. The nucleus accumbens is the part of our brains that decides our reward system. An addictive drug (or any addictive behavior) will ensure this part of the brain is powerfully flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which creates a feeling of pleasure. As the drug is used more and more, this bypass straight to dopamine is recorded by the hippocampus, a part of the brain which regulates memory.
Simultaneously, the brain’s amygdala records how the stimuli of said addictive drugs creates a feeling of pleasure. In turn, this behavior causes dependence on the drugs. Because the brain has now recorded how easily and quickly the drug has produced dopamine, it expects more to be able to sustain this production.
Increased usage of the individual’s addiction can be attributed to the tolerance their brain gradually builds up. Abused substances can quickly create anywhere from two to ten times the normal amount of dopamine in the brain, which overwhelms the brain almost instantly after the “high” is over.
To compensate for the drug’s production, the individual’s brain begins to produce less dopamine. This behavior causes two mind-altering results: firstly, it encourages the individual to keep using the substance in order to create dopamine, and; secondly, as the brain becomes desensitized to the new influx of dopamine, it requires more to feel the same “highs” of before, encouraging users to increase their drug intake.
Finally, the individual has become more and more numb to the original drug, and yet continues to take it compulsively to regulate their pleasure production. The aforementioned amygdala and hippocampus have set up a habitual association of the drugs to the setting of the user, enforcing a craving for the first time the drug was used upon seeing the stimuli. These desires to re-engage with the substance can persist years after initial abstinence.
There is no magic cure or other quick means to stave off addiction, and, unfortunately, those who recover are subjected to the risk of relapsing for years to come. Ultimately, the user must confront their problems with abuse and seek to treat them. Drug addiction is a daunting problem to try and solve, especially without a support system and the advice of experts, yet it is treatable. Programs to rehabilitate addiction vary depending on the source of abuse, but recovery is made especially possible through the help of others.
At Windward Way Recovery, we understand the intricacies of addiction and are ready to help. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we are here for you. Call us today to speak with an addiction specialist.