Addiction has been called a disease and for good reason. It invades the body, causes changes to the individual it infects and leaves its mark even after a recovery has been made. With other illnesses, we have learned that sanitation is important to prevent infection and vaccines can help prevent the outbreak of a disease. In the same way, increasing our knowledge of how addiction affects the body, and more specifically the brain gives us the power to fight against it and arm individuals for a successful recovery.
How Addiction Works
Our brains are wired to reward positive behavior that promotes our survival and discourage behavior that would harm us. For example, when we see or smell food, dopamine is released to promote this pleasurable experience helping us know it is something we enjoy and should do for survival. We then receive signals to stop eating when we have had our fill. This is called the rewards circuit and when it takes place, our bodies make a record of it and then encourage us to repeat that behavior in the future.
When drugs are taken into the body, dopamine floods the system, triggering the rewards circuit at a higher intensity than normal. This quickly leads to an increased response from the body, telling the individual it needs to repeat that experience. However, because of the intensity of the reaction, it comes across higher than other pleasurable experiences, such as eating or sex, and can quickly spiral toward addiction.
There are many factors that contribute to the development of addiction including genetic, environmental, and developmental factors. Some have a biological predisposition to addiction, while others may be influenced based on those they associate with, or their surrounding culture.
As the brain is continually flooded with dopamine with the continued use of the substance, there is a loss of control over behavior and even memory while cravings continue to increase. The addiction quickly develops as the need to experience the chemical result of the drugs becomes more and more of a “necessity” to the body.
Eventually, the rewards circuit in the brain is desensitized as tolerance for substance builds and dopamine receptors in the brain are actually shut off and even retreat into the cells. This leads to increased use as more substance is needed to produce the same result. For many drugs, there is a point of diminishing return where there is no longer a positive response, but the memory of the effects of the dopamine causes the addict to continue use in hopes of achieving prior results.
There are also many physical results that occur from addiction, including the changing of actual nerve pathways in order to support the dependency on the substance. These physical changes can make recovery more difficult and may even be impossible to overcome completely.
There are many forms of treatment available for the different forms of substance addiction. Treatments can help to heal the brain of damage caused and help it function more as it did before addiction set in. Unfortunately, not all changes in the brain will be fully reversed and there may be repercussions the individual will have to work with their entire life. For example, cravings for the substance may never completely subside, which is one reason that many people consistently avoid rehab. However, therapy can help the individual develop tactics to help prevent relapse, such as gaining an understanding of triggers.
Knowledge of the influential factors listed above (genetics, environment, and development) can be helpful in knowing what triggers need to be avoided in order to prevent relapse. By avoiding certain people, situations, or even emotions previously associated with the use of the substance, the person can increase their chances of continuing their recovery with greater success.
Addiction is a serious disease that affects the brain chemically as well as physically. As we increase our knowledge of what is happening to the brain during this process, we can help those suffering from addiction to learn behaviors and boundaries that will help them to not only recover but to ultimately stay clean.