Addiction Can Happen to Anyone: Here’s Why
“I never thought this could happen to me” are eight of the most terrifying words in the English language. For every person who becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs, even if they were initially prescribed by a doctor as is often the case with prescription opioids, their friends and loved ones almost always react with a sense of indignation and shock. It’s hard to stomach a grown child or parent’s transition from dependable to absentee, from healthy and employed to addicted and homeless. “How did this happen?” we ask ourselves. The truth is addiction can happen to anyone.
Sometimes even people without a family history of addiction, including alcoholism, have a hard time quitting their drug of choice once they realize it’s interfering with their health and daily life. Over time, repeated use of drugs like alcohol or opioid-based pain medications, and even marijuana, teach the brain to associate its use with feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Many addiction researchers are beginning to think that addiction can be best understood as a learning disorder, not a disease.
What’s the difference? Isn’t addiction happening in the brain one way or another? The difference is important, as furthering our understanding of addiction is essential to overcoming the powerful ways it can reshape and redirect the brain. Addiction feeds off our brain’s most powerful pleasure centers, dumping huge amounts of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine into our brain at a rate not found in any healthy activity. What can feel like a shortcut to happiness is really a sort of short circuit, and trying to take the easiest path to fulfillment often lands us even further from our destination. But this process is a learned behavior, not so unlike learning a new language. Our brains hardwire the connections for drug seeking into place, similar to how we learn how we learn other functions that feel good. That is the essence of a behavioral disorder, not a disease.
Make no mistake: if abusing drugs did not produce a biological effect that translates into physiological feelings of euphoria, addiction would end overnight. This is so true that the defining element of medications like Vivitrol, used in medication-assisted treatment for opioid abuse, is not that it discourages the addict from using, but that it prevents the addict from experiencing any of the classic euphoria associated with using. But it’s not enough to simply deprive the addict of whatever positive feelings they associate with their drug of choice; building strong and effective coping mechanisms that shore up an addict’s resiliency are the foundation of a life in recovery and an overall healthy lifestyle.
Anyone who struggles to build healthy coping mechanisms for life’s tribulations is at risk of forming unhealthy learning patterns to deal with their emotions. For some people that lack a healthy outlet for feelings like fear, anxiety and frustration, leads to addiction. The good news is that what can be learned can also be replaced by healthier activities. It is by replacing the addictive pattern with a healthier lifestyle that addiction is ultimately overcome.