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The Science of Addiction: Breaking the Stigma

by Jeffrey Juergens ❘  

The Stigma of Addiction

There’s a stigma in our society surrounding addiction — a belief that those who abuse drugs or alcohol, despite the consequences, are weak or morally failed, a belief that addicts choose to be addicts.

This belief is wrong.

Many addicted people struggle with the guilt and shame of their substance use because of this stigma, often preventing them from getting the help they need. In reality, those with addictions are no different than anyone else. Addiction can happen to anyone. It affects those of every race, age, gender and economic or social status.

Addiction is a chronic disease that alters the physical structure and function of the brain, which in turn alters behavior.

If you’re an addict, you are not to blame for your addiction. Having an addiction doesn’t mean you’re weak, morally flawed or a bad person. It just means you’re human.

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Addiction Changes Your Brain and Behavior

When you abuse drugs or alcohol, the parts of your brain that control pleasure, motivation, emotion and memory are affected, which can lead to addiction.

For example, using addictive drugs causes your brain to release large amounts of dopamine, which makes you feel pleasure and motivation quickly. Your brain stores this memory of quick and easy pleasure in the hippocampus, the part of your brain involved in forming new memories, as well as learning and emotions. At the same time, your amygdala, the area responsible for the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional reactions, creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli. For example, it may connect the sight of a syringe or the feeling of being in a certain room with pleasure caused by drug use.

Dopamine is only produced in limited amounts, so when your brain releases too much too often you’re left with a shortage. This shortage means you’ll have a hard time feeling happy about the things that you normally enjoy, like seeing your child or pet. When the drug wears off, you’re left feeling unhappy and uninterested in the things you used to care about.

But then, you remember how easy it was to feel pleasure with the use of the drug, so you use again. And so the cycle of addiction begins.

For some, an addiction can form quicker than it does for others. Some people are also more at risk for developing a substance addiction, like those who:

  • Have family members with drug problems
  • Start using drugs at a young age
  • Hang out with people who abuse drugs
  • Have preexisting or co-occurring mental conditions, like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, antisocial disorder and borderline personality disorder

Genetics, environment and development are all factors that determine someone’s risk for developing an addiction.

Addiction is Not a Choice

Many people voluntarily start using drugs or alcohol; once they’re addicted, that choice is taken away from them and they’re no longer in control.

In all my years as a physician, I have never, ever met an addicted person who wanted to be an addict.

- Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse

They may want to quit and may even have tried, but an addict’s brain is rewired, causing them to think and behave differently.

This change in brain structure and function can affect a person even after they stop using the substance, but some changes may be reversible with abstinence and treatment.

Addicts do not have a choice in their addiction, but they always have the choice to get help.

Beating addiction can be difficult, but it’s even harder when you do it on your own—especially if you have to detox. By getting treatment, you’ll have access to the knowledge and help of professionals who will give you your safest chance at recovery. You’ll also gain the support of a community who can help you through any struggles during your recovery, like dealing with triggers and relapse.

If you or someone you love is battling an addiction there is help available. Please contact a treatment provider today.

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