Tuesday, August 20, 2019 | Updated at 6:03 AM ET


Addiction: a Disease or a Lifestyle Choice?

First Posted: Aug 14, 2019 08:14 AM EDT
Addiction: a Disease or a Lifestyle Choice?

Photo : Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy from Pexels

Addicted people are typically seen by others as weak and lacking willpower. Most of them do not feel motivated to start treatment as they were told by people surrounding them that addiction is not a disease, it is a choice they have made. Such thoughts are not only destructive but naturally unhelpful. An addict may feel there is no way to get help and stays with his addiction one-to-one. Moreover, to cope with this social pressure an individual may start taking even more drugs or alcohol. When things are getting even worse, a good option is to call addiction helpline and get professional support and tips on substance abuse treatment. Addiction resource alcoholic hotline is a good alternative to substance intake as it provides real help, not just temporary symptom relief.

Interestingly, more recent research provides a new model of understanding addiction. Scientists argue that addiction is not a personality flaw but a disease. It's proven that drugs change the brain structure and trigger compulsive cravings to substances. This fact has big implications for those undergoing treatment at free rehabilitation centers. 

What is addiction?

Addiction is defined as a chronic brain disease that causes compulsive substance abuse even  despite its harmful consequences to the addict or people surrounding his or her. Addictive behavior is characterized by the inability to stop it. So a person keeps using drugs even when they see the harm caused by it. They know how bad it is for them and they don't want to be addicted, but still they can not stop taking substances. 

Drug addiction has a similar pattern to other chronic diseases like diabetes or asthma. Even if a patient goes into remission, there is a high risk to have relapses before they beat a disease entirely. But fortunately like almost any chronic disease, addiction can be cured and managed. 

Some people who do not agree with a disease model of addiction say that an addicted person chooses to try using drugs or alcohol. And this is true to some extent, but what about people who try substances and never get addicted? Some people have certain predispositions to addiction. Once they begin using drugs or alcohol, they may lose control of their life and choices. 

Addiction causes alterations in brain and thinking process. Except physical dependency that involves withdrawals, it also influences an individual's ability to make right decisions. 

How addiction changes the brain?

Studies show that any kind of drugs disrupts the reward system in the brain. Healthcare workers state that long-term drug usage is a reason of changes in the reward system that has negative influence on the brain functioning. Especially, those brain areas that are tied to decision making processes, learning, memory and control of behavior are all affected.

Nobody starts taking drugs with an intention to develop addiction, but many people get caught by it. The latest statistics shows that almost one in 10 Americans is addicted to drugs or alcohol. The most common drugs that cause addiction are marijuanna, opioids and cocaine. The risk of developing addiction also depends on genetic vulnerability. Recent studies point out that nearly 40% to 60% of susceptibility to drug dependence is hereditary. But still behaviour plays a crucial role in reinforcing a habit. 

People are mostly driven by the pleasure principle. Our brain registers all pleasant feelings in the same way, no matter what their origin is - a reward, sex encounter, delicious meal or a drug. When an individual feels natural pleasure their brain releases dopamine whereas by taking drugs a certain area of the brain is literally flooded with this neurotransmitter. That is how drugs cause a shortcut in the brain's reward system. This powerful surge of dopamine caused by addictive substances is kept in memory as the hippocampus helps to memorize this quick sense of satisfaction. In addition, the amygdala creates a conditioned response to a certain kind of stimuli. The speed with which dopamine release happens, the intensity of it as well as its reliability influence the likelihood of developing an addiction. Doctors say that even using different methods of taking  the same drug impacts how likely it will lead to addiction. It's known that smoking or injecting a drug more likely leads to addiction than swallowing it as a pill.

Interestingly that dopamine not only causes the experience of pleasure, but also plays a part in the learning process and memory which are two main factors in addiction development. As dopamine interacts with glutamate they create a circuit in the brain areas that are responsible for motivation and memory. Alcohol and drug intake stimulate this circle as well. Furthermore, addictive substances overload it over some time. This process serves as motivation to taking drugs because they are viewed as a source of pleasure. 

Addiction changes the brain's structure and erodes self-control which makes it extremely difficult to quit using substances with the help of will power. It's important to recognize addiction as a disease as the way we treat the condition is influenced by the way we see it. When one realizes that addiction is an illness it gets clear that curing it is not about willpower and choice. The perspective that an addict makes conscious decisions to continue their drug abuse is untrue and absolutely unhelpful for a successful treatment. Naturally, an element of choice is involved in addiction, but still it is hard to make the right decisions for someone suffering from addiction. Most people struggling with substance abuse are not addicted because they want to be, but because they feel a real need of it. In most cases their bodies are so dependant on substance that they can't stop using it. If one's drug or alcohol abuse gets out of control, the first thing to do is to call alcohol abuse helpline and choose a good drug rehabilitation center. In each American state there are a lot of alcohol help phone numbers, so the first step on your way to recovery is to find them.   

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