It’s more complicated than, “Just say no.” Addiction is not a disease that people choose—but it can happen to anyone, men or women. Addiction to substances like drugs, alcohol, opioids, heroin, and medications rewires the brain. Over time, we transition from liking something to craving it—needing it. Addiction takes over the mind and harms the body and spirit. Today, we know much more about how do drugs affect the brain. We know addiction is actually a brain disease and how drugs and alcohol can hijack the brain. There is sound science explaining how and why addiction happens, and this information is powerful for helping people overcome the disease.
Addiction vs. Abuse
First, let’s address the difference between addiction and abuse. Both impact the brain, but those who abuse substances are more likely to have success using willpower to kick a bad habit. Drug and alcohol abuse is when you use the substance in ways that are not healthy. That could mean reaching for that drink or six when you are stressed out and trying to wind down. It can mean taking too many prescription pills. Drug abuse is when you turn to substances to get a certain feeling: pleasure, escape, relaxation and so on. Drug abuse can be damaging to relationships and the body—but usually, a person can stop if he or she wants to. That is not the case with addiction.
Addiction is when you can’t stop using drugs or alcohol, even if you want to stop. Addiction drives you to keep using even if a substance is ruining your health, relationships, and finances. You can’t stop thinking about using the substance you are addicted to no matter what. Why? Because addiction is a disease that changes the brain.
Addiction Science: How Drugs Affect the Brain
We used to think that willpower alone should be enough to stop an addiction. That just saying no was the answer, and people who are addicted could just choose to not use. But we know much more about addiction today and the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain. People don’t choose to stay addicted to a substance—their brain demands the substance and more of it over time. Addiction is a brain disease, and here is how drugs and alcohol change the brain.
The Reward Center
The brain reacts to pleasure by releasing dopamine into the area of the brain known as the “pleasure center.” (This is technically called the nucleus accumbens.) Addictive substances give the pleasure center big-time rewards—lots of dopamine that immediately satisfy and create a surge of dopamine. Basically, addictive substances short-cut the brain’s pleasure system and make pleasure happen faster and more intensely. The brain gets strong signals and remembers those signals. (This leads us to the learning aspect of addiction.)
Learning and Memory
So, how do we go from liking something to becoming addicted? The brain plays a role in that, too. While dopamine is flooding the pleasure center of the brain, giving us fast rewards for using an addictive substance, that dopamine is also teaching the brain to keep wanting the drug. Dopamine interacts with a neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward-learning system. This is the same system that makes us seek out things that help us survive, such as water. We hunt for it because our brain tells us we need it. Using addictive substances can teach the brain to go after the substance—to find it and use it.
The brain tries to protect us, too, by releasing less dopamine over time. The more we use an addictive substance, the more we must use to get the same effect. The brain is trying to protect itself by muffling the effects of the drug—the fast pleasure, the feeling. But, because we are driven to get that reward, and we have learned to seek it, we take more of the drug or use more alcohol to achieve pleasure. Our tolerance to the addictive substance grows. Addiction makes us crave the drug and do whatever it takes to find and use it.
Who Is More Likely To Become Addicted
Anyone can become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Addiction does not discriminate: men and women of all ages and races can develop an addiction. However, some people are more predisposed to addiction than others because of genetics or environmental factors. Family history plays a role. If a family member struggles with substance abuse or addiction, you are more likely to become addicted. Also, early drug use while the brain is still growing can “teach” the brain to seek out addictive substances when you get older. So, genetics and early exposure to drugs and alcohol can and do increase the chances of addiction.
We also know that mental disorders can guide people to addictive substances. If you suffer from depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder or attention disorders, you can be more likely to use drugs or alcohol to feel better. And, those with troubled relationships also are at a higher risk for becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol because they might look for other ways to find pleasure in life—and there can be a lack of positive role models and support to provide healthier ways of coping with life’s challenges.
What’s important to know is, addiction is not something people choose. You don’t try a drug with the idea that you’ll become addicted to it. You don’t have a couple of drinks figuring that you’ll need alcohol. You don’t take a prescription medication for pain thinking that you’ll do anything to get more of this pill. Addiction is a disease that takes over the brain.
Are You Addicted?
Here are some common warning signs that you might be addicted to a substance.
You take more of the substance than you plan or want to, and for longer than you expected.
You have an urge to use the drug or drink alcohol every day or many times during the day.
You go to great lengths to find the substance if you do not have it. You will seek it out.
You keep using the addictive substance even if it is harming relationships or causing problems at work and home.
You do dangerous things while using the substance: stealing, lying, driving under the influence, etc.
You spend a great deal of time using or recovering from the substance.
You distance yourself from people who care about you.
If you try to quit, you might feel sick.
You cannot stop using the drug even though it is causing negative effects on your health and relationships.
You stop doing things you used to enjoy and use the addictive substance instead.
Recovering From Addiction
Overcoming addiction is not easy—but it is possible, and people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol have success using strategies including psychotherapy, medication, and self-care. Addiction recovery requires a layered approach and lots of support. It takes time, attention and help. Recovering from addiction involves so much more than breaking a habit. Remember, the brain has been reprogrammed—and during the recovery process, the brain must relearn ways to find pleasure and rewards without the use of an addictive substance.
Treating addiction involves addressing the brain chemistry: rewiring it through medication and/or psychosocial support. That can include group and individualized therapy, and programs such as 12 Steps. Holistic practices can support recovery and improve self-care, along with teaching the body other healthy ways to find satisfaction in life. That can include yoga, mindfulness and meditation—and art therapy, equine therapy or other alternative therapies that act as an adjunct to the main psychosocial aspect of addiction recovery.
How To Choose An Addiction Recovery Program
Will addiction treatment work? What is the best addiction recovery program for you? If you are asking these questions, you have already taken a significant and admirable step on the road to recovery. Here some important qualifications and features to look for when you are seeking a place to recover from addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Accreditation and Experience. Look for a recovery center with a qualified medical and therapy staff that can support you by customizing a recovery program. The center should be licensed and certified, and staffed with master-level clinicians. Programs should be overseen by a board-certified psychiatrist with experience in substance abuse. You should have 24/7 access to medical care, along with nutrition and health services to get you on the path to living well.
Detox. Is the center equipped to provide a safe, successful detox experience? This initial time when a person stops using an addictive substance makes them highly vulnerable and can also present medical challenges. Make sure the center has medical personnel on staff and a plan in place for detox.
A Customized Program. There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all addiction treatment. Many people need a multi-modal approach that includes individual and group counseling, possibly medication, and holistic options that support self-care. The program should offer therapy to address dual diagnoses including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD and other mental illnesses.
A Dedicated Counselor. A reputable rehab center will assign you to a therapist who gives you individual attention and is only responsible for a few patients at a time.
A Luxury Setting. A relaxing, comfortable environment will allow you to focus on the hard work of recovery so you can reflect, heal and treat yourself right.
Aftercare. You want a program that will support you long after you leave the addiction treatment center. Ask if the rehab center will coordinate a transition plan to return home. What outpatient therapy and services are available to support long-term recovery? You want a rehab program that will be there for you over the long-term.
Family Counseling. Addiction can break up families, and often there are relationships that need healing as a person facing addiction recovers. Find out how the rehab center works to mend important relationships—what family counseling programs are offered, and what support does the rehab center offer to families who are supporting their loved ones in recovery?
Addiction Is A Brain Disease
It’s not about just saying no. And even a person with incredible willpower can be overtaken by addiction because it is a brain disease. Addiction to substances like drugs and alcohol changes the way the brain functions—it alters the way the brain receives signals, and addiction ultimately changes the brain and trains it to crave and seek out the drug of choice. Now that we know the science behind addiction, we can take a layered approach to recovery that involves psychotherapy, medications, and mindfulness.
There is no easy road to recovery, but success is within reach for people suffering from addiction who seek help. Recovery is possible. Living well is achievable. Enjoying life without drugs and alcohol can be a reality with the right supports.
Let’s Talk. How can we help you? What questions about how do drugs affect the brain can we answer? We’re here 24/7—a real person will answer the phone, and your call is always confidential. It never hurts to ask: What’s the next step?