Choice or Disease: Understanding How Addiction Affects the Brain
For those who have never suffered from addiction before, it can be fairly easy to assume that addiction is nothing more than a choice that sufferers can stop at any time. Contrary to popular belief, what may start off as a choice of drug or alcohol use can quickly become an addiction that is uncontrollable without professional assistance. Understanding the way that the brain and addiction are connected can often help individuals who are not yet addicted to substances steer clear of the dangers, as well as educate those who know someone dealing with addiction.
Below is a more in depth explanation of how someone can become addicted as well as ways to get help.
What Causes Addiction?
Addiction essentially means to be bound to or enslaved by. Ideally, those who are categorized as addicts have reached a point where they feel as if they “need” substances such as drugs or alcohol to sustain a normal quality of life. Addiction therefore is a powerful influence that affects the brain. Addiction is not generally something that just happens the moment you pick up a drink or start using drugs. It is inevitably something that happens in stages if you will: cravings, adaption, and finally compulsion. While we are simply talking about the addiction to drugs and alcohol use, it has been proven that addiction can derive from activities including gambling, sexual intercourse, and even shopping.
Whether you received a promotion at work, enjoyed a great meal with your friends, or have taken some psychoactive drug, the brain will register the pleasure you receive from these occurrences exactly the same way. It will release neurotransmitters known as dopamine into the nucleus accumbens. Scientists as such refer to this part of the brain as the “pleasure center”.
When an individual uses stimulating substances such as drugs and alcohol, they send off a strong flow of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens. The more often the substances are used, the method in which they are used, and the level of intensity from which the dopamine is released into the brain can determine how quickly an individual becomes addicted. As individuals use these powerful drugs and alcohol, it creates a memory of sorts within the brain which then creates a conditioned response.
Just think about it for a moment… if you had an experience or even tasted something that was really enjoyable, you’re going to want to try it again. This is ideally what happens when an individual begins using drugs and/or alcohol. The brain begins to crave that level of satisfaction, until eventually the person feels conditioned to use again and again. Hence the next stage, adaption – often referred to as tolerance.
Loss of Control – Tolerance
Over a long period of substance abuse or alcohol consumption, the brain then begins to adapt to the level of dopamine and neurotransmitters sent to the brain. Addictive drugs and excessive alcohol consumption send a surge of dopamine to the brain, which then causes the brain to become overwhelmed. Since the brain is not aware of how to deal with the surge of neurotransmitters it will begin to produce less of them. Once the brain begins to decrease production, the influence that dopamine once had is now greatly diminished.
It is at this point in addiction where individuals find that taking the same type of drugs or drinking the same amount of alcohol will not have the same affect that it once did on their “pleasure center”. It is during this time that they feel the need to use more of the substance or stronger substances in order to obtain the same level of pleasure or “high” that they received previously. This is best defined as tolerance.
Compulsion – The Urge to Use
After a tolerance is developed and drugs and alcohol are consumed at a much greater rate, the next stage often experienced is compulsion or a strong desire and urge. What once started off as a pleasurable encounter has now dissipated, however, what remains is the memory of how it affected the brain. As such, there is an increased urge or desire to recreate that level of pleasure again. When someone suffering from addiction encounters certain triggers (Say a heroin addict sees a syringe and instantly feels the need to use again), the urge and cravings become more and more intense giving off the notion that this is no longer something that you want, but something that your body needs.
Getting Professional Help
Now that you have a better understanding of how drugs and alcohol can affect the brain, you should be better equipped to understand why addiction is not a choice but a disease. Getting help once you’ve become addicted will require the assistance of medical professionals. There are several options for treatment including detox with the assistance of medical professionals through a rehab facility, therapy, and other options. The option you choose will greatly depend upon your personal preferences and what will work best for you.
There are certainly plenty of reasons that people begin using drugs and alcohol. Whether it is to mask emotions, have a good time, or to unwind after a hard day, when we’re not careful, it can easily turn from a controlled level of use to addiction. Since everyone is different and reacts differently to substances, there is really no way to tell how many drinks or what type of drugs could cause you to cross over from use, to abuse, to addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with a drug or alcohol problem, getting help is by far the best thing you can do to turn your life around. Though sober living will be a lifelong journey, it is one well worth considering.
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drug Facts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction, November 2012. (source)
Black Bear Lodge, Drug and Alcohol Detox, 2015. (source)
Helpguide.org,Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Joanna Saisan, M.S.W. Drug Abuse and Addiction, April 2015. (source)
Lifestyle Dezine, Christopher Rivas, Bouncing Back from Addiction: What You Need to Know, January 26, 2015. (source)