Should you think of addiction as a disease? What is drug addiction? The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines it. It is a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite its harmful consequences.
Many people see drug or alcohol problems as a personal or moral failing, without understanding that it is in fact a disease. It’s not something a person chooses. Nor is it something someone does out of spite or anger. While the initial decision to take drugs or alcohol is often voluntary, the aftereffects change the way the brain works.
Substance use disorders, a term that has replaced “addiction” in the medical, scientific, and social service communities, is a medical condition; and to help people suffering from this disease, it needs to be treated like one. The first step to breaking the stigma around substance use disorders or alcohol and drug addiction? Understanding the science behind it.
Pleasure and Pain
A chemical called dopamine is released in the brain as a “natural reward” in response to pleasurable activities. Think of it like your body’s signal that what you just did felt good. Drugs and alcohol can cause dopamine and other similar chemicals to release, but in an amount much larger than from a natural stimulus. In fact, drugs can release “two to ten times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards release,” explains a University of Michigan study.
As an individual continually misuses drugs or alcohol, the brain starts to release less dopamine, making a person feel unmotivated or depressed. To counter this lethargy and feel the pleasure he or she used to feel, a person will return to misusing drugs or alcohol, often while increasing the amount used.
As the brain changes, so do the person’s efforts to capture that euphoric feeling by continuing to use. This perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse, and can even change the way a person’s memory works.
Misusing drugs and alcohol strengthens memory cues associated with using them. So even when a person is not around drugs or alcohol, he or she can be triggered into relapse around certain associated people, places, or things.
Sometimes, these memory cues are unavoidable. The effects of drug and alcohol on the brain can be so strong that relapse can be triggered even in someone who has been sober for a significant amount of time. Whether five days or five years sober, these memory cues can make it difficult to stay on the right path.
One of the common misconceptions about addiction is that it’s a choice.
Brain-imaging studies of people who are suffering from substance use disorder show real, physical changes to the areas of the brain responsible for judgement, decision making, learning, memory, and behavior control.
Scientists think that these physical changes can help explain the harmful behaviors of people suffering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Continuing Changes in Recovery
When you stop using drugs or alcohol, your brain doesn’t immediately return to normal. Drug and alcohol addiction can have lasting effects for months or years, even while someone is completely abstinent.
Some drugs have damaging effects that can kill neurons, which may or may not be replaced by the body. These changes can make it more difficult for people living in recovery to stay sober and to enjoy life. People in recovery can experience intense cravings and stress, leading to a greater likelihood of relapse.
In the end, the scientific evidence surrounding drug and alcohol addiction makes one thing clear. We need to see addiction as a disease, not a moral failing or lapse in character. Only with this understanding can we properly treat people suffering from substance use disorder, and get them the help they need.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, we can help.
Call 1-800-RECOVERY today to learn more and get started.