“You’re sick, you need help.”
If you’re struggling with substance abuse, you might have heard this line before. And if you’re reading this, you might be wondering whether you are actually suffering from a disease that can be treated. Is addiction really a disease, or is it just an excuse concocted to place the blame on anything but the addict?
There have been many different studies on addiction and how substance abuse affects the brain and the body. According to several experts, addiction can be considered a disease because using these substances changes the brain in a way that makes drug use a compulsive action, way beyond the user’s voluntary control. In short, the behavior becomes a matter that is not controlled by choice, because the brain is already resistant to any control.
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One of the early proclamations that addiction is a brain disease was made more than twenty years back by Alan Leshner, who was the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at that time. Leshner published an article which stated that drug addiction is a brain disease because it is tied to changes in brain function and structure.
Inside the addict’s brain
According to a 2016 report by Vivek Murthy, M.D., addiction is a chronic illness that is accompanied by significant changes in the brain. While first-time and early subsequent uses of the substance are voluntary and conscious actions by the users, continued use, however, develops into tolerance. Tolerance happens when the same amount of the substance is not providing the same effect which pushes the user to take more in order to feel the same level of pleasure as before. This becomes a habit that leads to addiction as constant activity progressively changes the brain. In the same year, an article by Dr. Michael Bierer, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, stated that when addicted people develop the impaired ability to resist drug and alcohol use, this is connected with the insufficient function of their brain’s prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that is involved in making significant executive decisions including delaying reward, self-monitoring, and evaluating what is important based on what you think versus what you may be compelled to do by your libido.
The impact on the brain can also cause people to find it hard to stop cravings and easily give in to relapse triggers such as the smell of alcohol or being in a place where you normally use drugs. The earlier in your life you use drugs, the harder it is to quit, especially if you started during the adolescent age when the brain is not yet fully developed.
The brain’s chemicals also play a big part when it comes to addiction. When a person is using drugs, the brain is flooded with neurotransmitters called dopamine, which is responsible for making you feel happy and in boosting your mood. When you experience an abnormally high boost of dopamine due to drugs, this can make your brain somehow insensitive to usual pleasure sources such as watching a good movie or spending time with friends.
Some experts also believe that there may be a genetic reason for addiction, which applies to people who naturally have a low number of dopamine receptors in their brain since birth. These people may find it hard to experience pleasure from natural dopamine sources so they are more likely to use drugs and other substances to heighten their pleasure.
There are also those who accidentally become drug addicts because they take medications that have high addiction potential. This was said to be one cause of the opioid epidemic, wherein good people got addicted to opioids because many were unaware that painkillers can be highly addictive.
Why is it important to understand that addiction affects the brain?
Until now the stigma attached to addiction exist. People struggling with substance abuse are seen as irresponsible, immoral individuals who only think about themselves. The sad thing is that this perception does not only apply to people currently abusing substances, but also to those who are already seeking or have completed rehabilitation. It makes it difficult for addicts to turn their lives around when they are constantly faced by judgment and discrimination. If society understands addiction better and how it affects the brain of a person, this can potentially encourage more people to help addicts seek treatment, rather than shunning them and pushing them further into their addiction. The focus should shift on how to treat these individuals so they become productive members of the community again.
Recovery: A choice you control
Substance abuse often starts as a conscious choice by the users but many times, being addicted to these substances goes beyond their control. It becomes a brain-altering habit that impacts their health and wellbeing. On the other hand, being under the claws of addiction is not purely a biological process. The choice to recover is yours and yours alone. Addiction is a disorder that can be treated as long as you possess the willpower to pursue recovery. It will not be an easy process but with the proper treatment plan, addiction recovery is possible.
There are people who may be in the early stages who could still be successful in cutting out their bad habit. However, the reality is, it is not often enough just to say “stop”. A person struggling with substance abuse needs proper care and treatment in order to overcome this damaging condition on a long-term basis. Some may even need medically assisted detox in order to properly heal.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, make the right choice for your health and your future. Contact Anaheim Lighthouse today to learn more. Help is available today.