Many people in the United States struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. The addiction epidemic has raised many questions, including the nature of addiction. Is addiction a disease or a choice? People have debated and researched the topic fiercely for years and continue to disagree about the origin of addiction. For families who have not yet been challenged with a loved one afflicted by drug abuse, it’s easy to unequivocally believe that there is always a choice in the matter. Until it happens to you. This is when the tide can shift.
Addiction and Its Effect on the Brain
Whether people believe addiction is a disease or a choice, numerous studies have demonstrated that there is a biological relationship between substance abuse and the brain. Addictive substances have an effect on the reward center in the brain. Drugs of all kinds stimulate this reward center, creating the high many people cite when talking about the immediate response to drug use. Although all drugs impact the reward center, they do it in different ways.
Alcohol causes the body to increase the amount of dopamine it produces, which is why many people have lowered inhibitions and sometimes experience an improved mood when consuming alcohol. Nicotine, marijuana and opiates have the same effect.
Cocaine and amphetamines operate on a different level. Instead of increasing the release of dopamine, these drugs block the chemicals that remove dopamine from synapses. This increases the amount of time that dopamine receptors are stimulated.
Each drug makes the user feel intense pleasure, either by prolonging the stimulation of receptors or increasing the production of dopamine.
Effect of Long-Term Substance Abuse on the Brain
The immediate effect of drug use may be positive, but it is merely an illusion as the habit becomes damaging over time. If the dopamine receptors continue to be impacted, they will eventually be damaged or destroyed. The brain, trying to fight the unnatural effect of the drugs and maintain equilibrium, will reduce its dopamine production. With less dopamine production, it will be more difficult for the person to feel pleasure or happiness. The user will not be able to achieve the same high with the same amount of drugs taken previously, leading the individual to increase the dosage. This becomes a cycle until the dopamine receptors are damaged enough that the person cannot feel any pleasure without taking a large dose of the drug or drugs they are using.
The Primary Causes of Relapse and Overdose
The threat of relapse is staggering after a person stops using drugs. Many people struggling with addiction relapse multiple times before kicking the habit for good.
Relapse occurs because the brain becomes conditioned to reduced dopamine production in specific situations. Environmental cues, or relapse triggers, will cause the brain to reduce production in anticipation of the approaching drug use. In addition, the body and the brain can still crave the drug(s) long after addiction treatment has taken place. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome “PAWS”, can happen to a person during months or years after their journey in recovery has begun, putting them at risk for relapse.
Overdose, a serious and often fatal consequence of addiction, can happen when someone uses the increased dose while in an unfamiliar environment, too much of a drug is taken or if the drug has been altered to include other drugs, especially synthetic drugs. The brain does not reduce dopamine production or dull receptors and becomes overwhelmed with the sudden impact. Many overdoses even occur when the person is taking his or her usual dose because of the absence of the biological reaction.
Once the process of addiction begins, and for some the timeline varies, a choice in the habit can quickly diminish.
Addiction and Free Will
Researchers have concluded there is a clear relationship between addiction and free will. After extensive drug use, the person struggling with addiction is unable to experience pleasure without the drugs. This often leads the person to be willing to sacrifice anything to reach that high. The biological consequence of addiction turns the focal point of the individual’s life into drugs. When obtaining and using drugs becomes the most important thing, the person loses free will.
Taking Steps to Fight Addiction
The loss of free will is a consequence of addiction, so overcoming addiction is exponentially more difficult. Accountability for drug addiction shifts, because the person using has lost the essence of free will. However, there are steps a person can take before addiction sets in to minimize the risk and to prevent the incidence of relapse: Identify the environments and situations in which you are more likely to use drugs. This will help you determine when your brain is more likely to reduce dopamine production, dull receptors and crave use.
This same biological reaction reduces the sense of free will. But if you were to ask people struggling with addiction whether they maintain control over the actions, they would likely say that they do or if don’t it’s because they are at the point of not caring anymore. A dangerous place to be. Once a person struggling with drugs or alcohol has no free will, they are less likely to fight against addiction, continuing to spiral downward to a point of no return.
For more information about overcoming drug or alcohol addiction in yourself or someone you care about, contact one of America’s Rehab Campuses addiction treatment specialists who can inform and guide you through the process compassionately and confidentially.
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