Answers to Three Questions You’re Too Afraid to Ask about Addiction
Addiction is not a subject most people are comfortable discussing. Other than early prevention programs many grade schools run to deter early drug abuse, most people live their whole lives without any meaningful addiction education. Yet tens of millions of Americans are at risk of developing an addiction every year, leaving close friends and family members with more questions than answers. Here are three of the most common questions people have when they find out a loved one is addicted to alcohol or drugs, and the science that answers them.
Why do people develop an addiction in the first place? There are a series of powerful physiological and social factors that can increase the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction. Research shows that people who experience adverse childhood experiences including physical or sexual abuse or parent-modeled addiction are at a greater risk of developing an addiction later in life. The presence of other physical or psychological illnesses, including anxiety, depression and traumatic brain injuries, can also predispose someone to substance abuse.
According to researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine, addiction gains a foothold in the brain by tapping into our brain’s pleasure center, a series of networks designed to reward us with pleasurable feelings when we do things that ensure our survival. Eating, sleeping and having sex are all natural activities our pleasure center was designed to reward us for doing. Abusing a drug like heroin or alcohol triggers the brain’s pleasure center more aggressively than natural cues, resulting in an intense high. It is this high that the brain wants to experience again and again and is the starting point for addiction.
Why do people continue to use drugs, even when it hurts them or people they love? On a long enough timeframe, even the most pleasurable behaviors produce decreasing amounts of dopamine in the brain. The first chocolate bar you eat will taste great, and the second will taste good too, but if you eat five chocolate bars every day you will probably get sick of them. More of a good thing isn’t necessarily a positive experience.
Although people addicted to alcohol and drugs build up a tolerance to their drug of choice and must increase the amount they consume over time, the Stanford researchers concluded that ultimately substance abuse will always results in a dump of feel-good neurotransmitters to the brain. The brain needs this neurotransmitter boost and will drive the addict to go to any length to get it, even if the addict him/herself or others are hurt in the process.
Why isn’t a physical detox enough to end someone’s addiction? The neurological impact of drug abuse means that getting the drug out of the body is just the first step towards recovery from addiction. Over time, substance abuse permanently alters the way the brain is wired. In order to heal, healthier brain function must be restored. Not only must healthy mechanisms for dopamine production be restored, but also an overall healthy lifestyle, is essential to long-term recovery and brain health.
If you’re concerned that someone you know or love may be developing an addiction, don’t be afraid to seek help.