Addiction is not something a person chooses. It is an illness that affects nearly 21 million Americans and causes over 64,600 deaths a year. While it afflicts some people more than others, it can affect anyone from any background, and take many shapes and forms. Some people struggle with behavioral addictions, unable to stop a certain addictive behavior like illicit sexual activity or video gaming, despite severe negative consequences to both physical and mental health. Others get addicted to substances, from illicit drugs like heroin to prescription medication and alcohol, suffering changes to their mental state in the process.
Yet what all addicts have in common is the inability to regulate and control their behavior, sometimes despite a deep and intimate understanding of the consequences. We have tried the violent way – millions of Americans are put behind bars every year, and many of them for drug offenses. Yet far too often, they simply become repeat offenders, relapsing after rehab, or ending up in jail again.
The only way forward is addiction treatment – and that involves understanding what addiction does to the brain and mental state and knowing what it takes to reverse that damage.
What Drugs Do To The Mental State Of The Brain
Addiction is a neurological issue – it affects the mental state and a network of functions in the brain related to pleasure and addiction. Many everyday activities trigger these reward pathways, like exercise, comfort food, sex, and social interaction. Anything that naturally makes us happy stimulates these pathways, triggering the release of neurotransmitters that make us feel a certain joy.
These pathways can be flawed. In some individuals with clinical depression, for example, they fail to properly distribute and reuptake serotonin, an important neurotransmitter for happiness. This makes it difficult for some people with clinical depression to feel joy at all and causes them to feel deep sadness for no apparent reason, without a distinct trigger.
In people who struggle with addiction, certain behavior and addictive drugs have overstimulated the neurons in the brain, through an excessive release of happiness neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine. This abundance in dopamine releases changes the mental state of the person and causes a desensitization to the natural effect of the neurotransmitter – making drugs less effective, and making old hobbies seem less fun.
The Addiction Loop
Eventually, the drug becomes a necessity due to the altered mental state. The body develops a psychological need for more drugs, to maintain a state of normalcy. Often enough, trying to quit ends up in drastic and painful withdrawal symptoms, and extreme cravings for the drug, akin to a severe thirst for water in the middle of a hot desert.
Addiction completely corrupts the mental state of the brain and way it is wired for motivation and happiness, making the acquiring, and using of a drug or the repeating of a certain behavior more important than almost anything else.
The cycle of tolerance, withdrawal and relapse is a constant one in many people with addiction. While tolerance and withdrawal can be exclusive and are not necessary for the definition of an addiction – you can be addicted without having issues with tolerance – they are often correlated. This loop makes it even harder to quit, as people not only have to cope with living in sobriety, readjusting to life without drugs, fighting terrible cravings and being confronted with guilt and societal stigma over their addiction, but they must fight against terrible physical symptoms for days every time they try to quit.
Long Term Effects Of Drug Use
Drug use does more than temporarily change the way the mental state of the brain. Often enough, it can have long-lasting effects. Substance abuse carries the risk of long-term brain damage, often in the form of cognitive deficiencies, and issues with critical thinking and problem solving. People who have been addicted will continue to have issues with risk-assessment for some time, and it can take a while to fully regain your ability to think critically and assess certain situations.
This is often due to how long-term substance use damages brain tissue, specifically areas of the brain pertinent to making choices, and memory. Most drugs, especially alcohol, stimulants, and opiates, can have severe consequences with long-term misuse, such as organ failure and strokes.
Why So Few People Seek Treatment
The mental state of someone aware of their addiction yet unable to fight it alone can be very negative. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are common among people with addiction versus the public due to how the addiction loop promotes and breeds negative thinking and makes it difficult to hope for a healthy and safe future. This is compounded by the fact that people with addiction are not treated compassionately in public.
Many people see addicts as morally corrupt and physically soiled, and instead of helping addicts and seeing them as people struggling with an illness, few people have the empathy to treat them fairly. The criminalization of addiction and stigmatization of addiction in the workplace means the chances of getting back into society’s good graces are slim for many addicts, making a happy sobriety seem almost impossible on the surface.
We have come a long way, and many programs exist to help addicts – but it is still a dreary outlook, making recovery very difficult, and providing one of many explanations for why so few people decide to take up treatment for their addiction. However, that does not mean treatment is not always the best option. It is. No matter how far you have come or what you have been through, getting help is necessary for everyone still struggling with addiction, and it gives them the best shot at a better life.
How Treatment Can Reverse Drug Damage
Recovery can reverse a lot of the damage done by drugs, especially through years of healthy living. A clean, balanced diet and exercise can improve a person’s cognitive abilities and help keep you healthy and living for a long while. Many of the negative health effects attributed to addiction are tied to poor diet and malnourishment – focusing on healthy eating habits as a part of sobriety can improve your quality of life tremendously.
Life after addiction can be much better – but getting to that point is not easy. Treatments exist for all people, varying in length and treatment type depending on a person’s circumstances and preferences. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment, but addiction treatment today is varied enough that anyone can seek help, and often get the help they need to achieve lasting sobriety and return to a better, drug-free life.