Most people who get caught in an addiction don’t realize what’s happening in the brain each time they drink or use drugs. Instead, what they experience is the high and the immense pleasure that comes with ingesting a new substance. What they experience is something new, a feeling that puts them on top of the world, and perhaps a widening of an otherwise narrow view of themselves.
And of course these experiences are going to draw someone back again and again to using a drug. This is especially true if someone has never experienced anything like it before. Something about the experience captivates them. However, it’s not only the high that gets a person hooked; it’s also the way the brain responds to the high. Experts believe that addictive drugs activate the brain’s reward system. The drug increases the release of dopamine from neurons in critical areas of the brain.
Typically, dopamine is released after pleasurable experiences take place, whether you’re high on a drug or not. For instance, after eating food or after having sex, a person’s brain will release dopamine. However, taking certain drugs can induce dopamine too. In fact, there are certain drugs that artificially induce the presence of dopamine in a person’s brain, which might cause them to want more and more of the drug. And to make matters worse, some people have a genetic disposition that cause the brain to develop an addiction more rapidly than others.
When a person has the beginning elements of an addiction, he or she might go from regular use of the drug to substance abuse. Substance abuse happens when a person consumes drugs or alcohol in amounts that are harmful to themselves or others. This unhealthy use of a substance can further exacerbate the possibility of addiction. Despite popular views of addiction (e.g., that it results from personal failure or that only people who are flawed find themselves with addiction), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has determined that addiction is an illness. Just like other illnesses that come with symptoms and can be treated, so too is addiction a disease of the brain.
Addiction is not like any disease, however. It is a complex brain disease. It comes with compulsive behavior (behavior that a person cannot seem to control), cravings, and substance use that continues despite destructive consequences. Addiction affects a person emotionally, psychologically, and physically. It involves the workings of the brain, an organ that experts are just learning more about. And for all these reasons, addiction may very well continue to be misunderstood. Sadly, when the general public does not understand something, it tends to judge it or fear it. And as long as there is question about what addiction is, then the stigma of substance abuse and addiction might remain.
However, if you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, one thing is clear: treatment works. Millions of people have been able to get sober because of treatment. By attending an addiction treatment center or a sober living home, people can get sober and return to normal living. If you need help, contact a mental health professional today.
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