What Really Happens When Someone has an Addiction?

Published On: March 30, 2017|Categories: Addiction|
Understanding the Disease of Addiction The Brain

We all know that drugs are harmful and can have devastating consequences on a person’s life. What’s lesser-known is how addictions develop and the science behind this process.

While important research is still being conducted regarding the origin of addiction, there’s plenty we’ve learned in the past few decades that have changed our understanding of drugs and alcohol. In this article, we’ll explore the most up-to-date science about the brain and addiction.

The history of drug addiction

For centuries, people who struggled with addiction were blamed as moral failures. There was little understanding of what addiction actually is and how it affects behavior. Generally, people who suffered from addiction were jailed, treated as psychiatric patients or found themselves homeless.

According to an article in the journal Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, as our understanding grows, we are more able to identify, diagnose and treat substance use effectively. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition, which is the tool used by medical and mental health professionals to treat substance use disorders now emphasizes biology and the activation of the brain’s reward system. 

As a society, we have switched from approaching addiction with punishment to treating it as a health concern. This allows us to target research towards effective service methods and look toward addressing risk factors for substance use disorders to prevent future addiction.

What we know now

Drug addiction used to be considered a personality flaw, now we know that addictions develop regardless of personality, age, gender and other factors. Addiction can affect anyone, and that’s because it has to do with the way brain chemicals interact with the drugs.

When a person consumes a drug, the body releases certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters. These chemicals interact with different parts of the brain, notably the areas responsible for sensations of pain and pleasure. The drugs often produce a euphoric or relaxing effect.

This result is desirable for the body, and a pathway is carved in the brain, associating the drug with the enjoyable feeling. However, these synthetic chemicals have a plethora of negative consequences.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the areas of the brain involved in this process are the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These areas are responsible for positive motivation (pleasure), responding to stress and anxiety, rationalizing and self-control. It’s easy to see how these behaviors are influenced when drugs are present.

While we may understand logically that drug use causes a host of issues, the brain is still focused on the pleasure sensation. This is often called rewired brain circuitry, because the more a substance is used, the more the brain perceives it as a reward, despite the hazardous effects it produces.

As a person uses a drug repeatedly, the body also builds up a tolerance to the substance. This is the system’s attempt to adapt to the presence of the drug, but it means the body will require more and more of the drug to feel the same high effect. While the high is the same, the consequences are worse.

Signs of an addiction

While some people claim to use drugs casually, or on a recreational basis that’s still in their power to control, the reality is that after the first few uses of a drug within a short time span, it’s very likely that an addiction will develop.

Addiction is characterized by continued substance use despite negative consequences. Thus, if you or a loved one has experienced unfavorable outcomes but continued the same drug use behavior, your brain chemistry has probably changed without your awareness.

Sadly, addiction is often so little anticipated that people succumb to it before they have a chance to fight it. For this reason, education on the science of brain addiction is critical. The more people understand the subconscious nature of how addictions develop, the better we can prevent the devastation of drug dependence.

Causes of addiction

While drug addiction can happen to anyone, there are certain risk factors that make the onset of a substance use disorder statistically more probable. Here are the most common risk factors according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Mayo Clinic.

  • Genetics
  • The family’s perspective on drug use
  • A family history of addiction
  • The age a person first uses substances
  • Early aggressive behavior
  • Comorbid mental health concerns
  • Low family involvement
  • The availability of drugs
  • Taking a highly addictive substance
  • Low socioeconomic status

These and other factors may contribute to the chances that a person will be affected by substance use. 

Getting help

The research is clear: addiction is a disease that needs professional medical and mental health treatment. There’s no denying the drastic toll substance abuse can take on your body and your brain, so the sooner you start the easier recovery will be. 

When you’re ready to get help, reach out to Pyramid Healthcare. Reclaim your life with the help of personalized treatment and compassionate professionals. Call today.

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