The History and Science of Addiction: a Quick Overview
Since the 1930’s, when we started to really take a serious, scientific look at substance abuse, our understanding of addiction has changed drastically. We actually didn’t even recognize addiction as a medical disease until recently! Instead, we used to dismiss addiction, equating it to a simple case of being a jerk, or lacking willpower.
To modern ears, this sounds silly, but back then, we didn’t have the technology to observe things like brain activity, hormonal changes, or neurotransmitter imbalances which would have clued us in on the biological roots of addiction. This is also exactly why we kept trying to perform exorcisms on people with epilepsy well into the 19th century!
Now that we know so much more about the human brain, we can forget about demons and pointing fingers, and instead focus on research-based, scientifically sound treatments for these chronic brain diseases.
We’d like to go over some of the key points you need to know for a deeper understanding of how addiction works, and why it happens to some of us and not others. On our way there, we will touch on the following subjects:
- Neuroscience: The effect drugs have on the human brain
- Psychology: How we get hooked
- Risk Factors: Why some of us are more vulnerable to addiction than others
- The Solution: What we do to overcome addiction
Drugs & the Brain
The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.
Why is Addiction a disease?
- fMRI scans show that drug abuse over time causes the brain to physically change, and to also function abnormally.
- Research based on twin studies and statistics on family history, show that a vulnerability to addiction can be passed down genetically.
- Like other medical conditions, It’s treatable
Some say that addiction doesn’t count as a disease because at some point we have to have the choice to use drugs to become addicted. Following this line of thinking, all sorts of legitimate conditions with behavioral components (aka a matter of choice) would no longer count as diseases: lung cancer, type II diabetes, asthma, heart disease, etc..
How do drugs affect the brain?
Every drug has its own unique chemical makeup, and therefore causes unique sensations and reactions within the brain. Some drugs are stimulants, or uppers, causing us to feel a rush of euphoric energy. Others are depressants, aka downers, and cause a pleasurable relaxed feeling. There are also hallucinogenic drugs, which don’t easily fit into upper or downer categories.
Despite the wide variety of individual effects, all recreational drugs are used for their ability to produce pleasurable mental states. This is because the end result of all the different physiological reactions that drugs can produce in our brain, is an overstimulation of the Dopamine Reward System.
This is the brain’s natural system for encouraging healthy behaviors necessary for survival. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Our brain releases it naturally whenever we do necessary and healthy things like eating food or having sex. It’s because of this dopamine response that these feel really good, and we have the urge to keep doing them.
Recreational drugs force the brain to release extra dopamine, and prevents reabsorption (clearing out the excess). Drug use produces a dopamine response that is 2-10 times more intense than what the brain would ever produce naturally. This is why we continue to use drugs, in order to seek out that rush of intense pleasure.
From Drug abuse to Drug Addiction
We’ve just learned that the reason we like drugs and choose to use them, is because of the pleasurable effects they cause, which are the result of an overstimulated dopamine system. Now, what does this have to do with addiction?
Over time, a drug-user’s’ brain will adjust by reducing the amount of dopamine it produces in general, and by getting rid of extra dopamine receptors. This means that with time, we require a higher and higher dose to produce the same sensations as when we initially started using the drug. You may have already heard of this process; it’s called building a tolerance.
Once we’ve built up a tolerance, it means that our dopamine reward system is damaged, no longer functioning the way it should. Important behaviors like eating and socializing produce too little dopamine too compete with the drugs anymore. With fewer receptors to pick up these weak signals, we end up incapable of feeling pleasure from any activity besides using drugs.
At this point, we start to behave differently, and our priorities change drastically. Obtaining and using drugs become the absolute most important aspect of our lives. Everything else falls away; our old interests simply don’t feel rewarding anymore in comparison. This is how we get trapped in Addiction
What makes some of us more vulnerable to addiction than others?
Some people can get away with using drugs every once in awhile and move on with life just fine. Meanwhile, others try drugs once and immediately get hit with a storm of problems as a serious addictive disorder develops. Why is that?
There are certain risk factors, both biological and environmental, which can make us more likely to get addicted than others.
The biological risk factors that we know of so far are:
- A family history of addiction: Twin studies have shown that an addictive personality is hereditary. Children and grandchildren of addicts are more likely to develop an addiction themselves, even if they grow up in an adoptive family with no other addicts.
- Underlying Mental Illness:When we suffer from a mental illness, especially mood disorders like depression and anxiety, we are twice as likely to become addicted. This may be due to our tendency to ‘self-medicate’ our anxiety and depression using drugs and alcohol.
- Ingrained personality traits:Our personalities have the ability to change over time, though generally we are born with certain tendencies. Psychologists have identified that people who love risks and new sensations, emotionally volatile people, and those who are more impulsive are more likely to develop an addictive disorder.
Environmental risk factors include:
- A stressful family environment, especially during infancy: As young children, our brains are rapidly developing as we construct our world view based on what we see around us. As babies, we can develop an Insecure Attachment Style if our home is stressful and our parents/caretakers are not available. This puts us at a much greater risk for addiction.
- Availability of drugs and alcohol: When drugs and alcohol are nearby and our peers are using them, we are more likely to get involved. The effects of having drugs nearby are especially important for adolescents, but affects all age groups.
The Solution to Addiction: How do we treat it?
There are so many stories circulating out there about people overcoming their addiction with sheer willpower. However, our years of experience and the scientific research tell us that there’s really so much more to addiction treatment. Without the necessary components of recovery, including support, a chance to work things through in therapy, and a long-term recovery plan, most of us will relapse.
Rehabilitation is by the far the Safest and most Effective, Long-Term solution to addiction. Depending on the severity of your family’s specific case of addiction, you will be placed in an Inpatient, Outpatient, or Combination style rehab program. In each of these kinds of program you will be supported all along the way as you:
- Safely Detox from drugs and alcohol
- Participate in both individual and group therapy
- Learn new life skills: Coping with ugly emotions, Living independently, building healthy relationships, and more.
- Build a Lifelong plan for maintaining your recovery: Relapse happens even to the best of us, which is why a life-long plan is necessary. Support groups, buddy-systems (for accountability), and maintenance therapy sessions are a few of your long-term options.
The options are truly limitless when it comes to treatment style and perspective, as every rehab center is staffed and run by uniquely talented individuals. For a start, here are some of the most popular addiction treatment perspectives:
- Christian/Faith-based – Rehab centers based on christian values, or other faith systems are quite popular and effective.
- Luxury – This style of rehab means that you will be participating in a cutting edge treatment program designed by leaders in the field. Luxury style rehab centers cost more because they incorporate the latest psychological and medical advances into their treatment, and have a higher staff/patient ratio.
- State-Funded – These centers may be more simple, and you may have to wait for an opening, but the state will help cover your bills.
- Holistic – Being healthy is more than just living addiction-free. Holistic rehabs recognize this fact, and incorporate physical, spiritual, and emotional exercises into their treatment models.
Rehab for those with Specific Needs
Addiction happens to all sorts of people, not just able-bodied adults. Rehab facilities exist for every type of individual with their own unique needs. Let us know what makes your case unique, and we can help you search for the perfect fit. Some specialty programs out there include:
- Rehab for teenagers
- Dual-Diagnosis treatment: for those who struggle with both addiction and mental illness
- Rehab for those with handicaps: for people who struggle with addiction as well as physical handicaps, developmental delays, or learning disabilities.