The Science of Addiction

What’s going on in an addict’s mind? Why would a friend or loved one continue to use excessively, knowing it was affecting their life?  Why would they abuse drugs, knowing the negative consequences?  From the viewpoint of someone on the outside looking in, it may seem as simple as finding the willpower to stop engaging in your addictions.

So why don’t addicts just make the choice to break free from addiction?  If you look up the definition of addiction, you would discover it is derived from the Latin term for “enslaved by” or “bound to.”  Many people also add the word “hijacked” to that list.  You can think of it in the same way that lung disease takes over, and eventually damages, the lungs; addiction hijacks, and damages, the brain.

Today we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes the functioning of the brain structure along with other organs of the body.  Addictive drugs provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The hippocampus then lays down memories of this “faster than normal” sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli.  While the biology can be confusing to understand, you can think of it as the reward circuitry of the brain being short-circuited and overloaded. Then, the brain learns to crave that reward at the chemical level. There are neurophysiological changes to the brain that result from this learning and the experience associated with the use of drugs or alcohol. This is why cues and triggers have so much power.  Think about the smell of cookies baking in the oven as a kid. Decades later, that smell still has the power to trigger your desire for warm and delicious cookies.  Now imagine the power of that “natural” reward circuitry in your brain over cookies, and double it or even multiply it by tenfold. That is how powerful addiction is toward the reward center of the brain.  The point is that there is a lot going on in the mind of someone struggling with addiction, but there is hope!

Recovering from addiction takes time. Support from friends and family really does make an impact in getting beyond the logic of an addict.  However, it’s important to remember that an addict will not recognize the real problems until they can no longer avoid the reality of the situation. Many have described this as hitting rock bottom.  That doesn’t mean they have to lose everything.  They just have to get to the point where they reconcile the reality that they need to stop.

3 tips that can help:

  • An addiction therapist can be a valuable resource. Instead of directly challenging the behavior, they seek to guide the individual to see the truth for themselves.
  • An addict will usually be more willing to talk with someone who has been there and understands what it’s like. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous is such a powerful resource.
  • Even if an addict is in a place where they don’t want help, recovery resources such as books, audio and video can still change the trajectory and get them closer to moving in the direction of recovery.

Every journey to recovery looks different.  But, one thing they all have in common is hope!  Below are links to three real addiction stories of individuals in the process of overcoming their addiction.

One thing to remember is that you are never alone.  If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, contact the Walker Center for a confidential assessment.