The Science of Addiction

For many years it was thought that people with addictions simply had a failure of willpower or were somehow morally bankrupt. Unfortunately the stigma of addiction still makes this the case among many people. But with more scientific research into the subject, these viewpoints are slowly changing. Addiction is not the consequence of moral failings, but is classified as a disease by the American Medical Association. In 1987, the AMA and other medical organizations officially termed addiction a disease.

What is drug addiction?

Scientists have studied the effects drugs have on the brain and on behavior and define addiction as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. It is considered a brain disorder, because it involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control. The changes last a long time after a person has stopped taking drugs. In this way addiction is a lot like other diseases, such as heart disease. Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of the body, both have serious harmful effects, and both are preventable and treatable. If left untreated they can last a lifetime and may lead to death.

Why do people take drugs?

There are many reasons people start to take drugs and abuse alcohol. Here are a few:

  • To feel good.  Drugs can initially produce intense feelings of pleasure
  • To feel better. Some people who suffer from anxiety or depression start using drugs and alcohol to try to feel less anxious and depressed. Stress can play a major role in why people start using in the first place.
  • To do better. Certain drugs give one the sensation of having more energy and focus. With initial use, tasks can be performed more quickly and efficiently.
  •  Curiosity and social pressure. Teens are particularly at risk here because they are highly susceptible to peer pressure and risky behaviors.

They make you feel good, so what’s the problem?

When people first start taking drugs they often have the perception of positive effects from the substance. But over time they may begin to struggle to control their use. They need more and more of the substance to reach the same high, so they are continually chasing that first high. Drugs can then take over a person’s life. Over time, activities which used to be enjoyable become less pleasurable and they are taking the drug just to feel “normal.”

But people freely choose to use drugs – what’s their problem?

The initial decision to take drugs is typically voluntary. But with continued use a person’s ability to exert self-control becomes compromised. This is the hallmark of addiction. Brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavior control. Thus, the compulsive nature of addiction. Shame is the greatest barrier to people seeking help for substance abuse. People feel they ought to have the strength and will power to overcome addiction on their own. But now modern medicine is showing us the parts of the brain required to do that are greatly compromised. Addiction cannot be conquered alone. If you or someone you love is suffering from a substance use disorder, our counselors can help.  I am a Licensed Masters Addiction Counselor and would welcome a call from you!

-Amy Schreffler, LCMFT, LMAC