What is Addiction?
When you hear the word “addiction”, you probably have some ideas that come to mind:
- Using drugs
- Abusing pain meds
- Maybe even drinking to excess
Those behaviors can certainly be part of an addiction, but addiction is so much more than just a behavior. Addiction affects a person in every aspect of their lives. And, just as important, it affects those who love them.
If you’re on the outside looking in, it can be hard to understand why your loved one just doesn’t stop. If you’re the person struggling with the addiction, you probably find yourself wondering, “Why can’t I just stop?”
Being able to stop is not about willpower. Or weakness. Or obstinance. When your loved one says, “I can’t stop on my own”, there is truth in what they’re saying. Addiction holds a power over the person in a way that willpower alone cannot control.
Let’s take a closer look at this thing called addiction.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a “treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”1
People often wonder why addiction is considered a brain disease and not just a behavior. Addiction is considered a brain disease because the misuse of substances like alcohol and drugs literally changes the brain - neurochemically, functionally, and structurally. Once thought to be just a “choice”, we now know that certain substances and behaviors create verifiable changes in the brain.2For example, functional MRI (fMRI) studies have found that certain substances and actions have been to trigger intense responses in the brain’s pleasure receptors. Neurotransmitters that normally regulate thinking and behavior are disrupted. These and other changes serve to reinforce the body’s need for the substance creating dependence.
Addictions include addiction to substances such as alcohol addiction, opioid addiction, benzodiazepine addiction, stimulant addiction, and illicit drug addiction. Addictions can also be to behaviors or processes. These addictions may not involve a substance. Common behavioral addictions include gambling addiction, pornography addiction, sex addiction, love addiction, gaming addiction, and even food addiction.
Of course, not everyone who drinks, misuses substances, or gambles develops an addiction. So what is addiction's development process?
How Addictions Develop
Addiction is based on the pleasure principle. This idea might be surprising since the reality of addiction is anything but pleasurable. But addiction starts in the brain which releases dopamine when it detects something pleasurable. Drugs and alcohol flood the brain with dopamine resulting in an intense but short-lived pleasure response.
Normally, when faced with a choice to do something, your brain’s decision-making center can decide if it’s worth it or not. Drugs and alcohol disrupt the risk/reward circuits in the brain leaving you wanting more. The pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s decision-making center, becomes impaired and the person can’t make the decision to stop even when they know the consequences are dire. Fear of not being able to get the drug also triggers the brain’s danger-alert system.3Using helps to temporarily meet the need for reward and avert the perceived “danger”…until next time.
Risk Factors for Developing an Addiction
Why is it that not everyone who uses substances becomes addicted? The truth is, science doesn't have a cut-and-dry answer. What we do know is that certain factors seem to increase the risk that someone may be more susceptible to developing an addiction.
- Genetics – Addiction tends to run in families. In fact, studies have found that genetics may account for as much as 40-60% of a person’s risk for addiction.4
- Family Life – Early childhood experiences and home life can influence what happens later in life. Having parents who misuse drugs or alcohol or who break the law, can increase a child’s risk of future substance problems.5
- Peer Influences – People can be influenced by the company they keep. People who hang out with friends who misuse substances are more likely to use and develop an addiction. Peer pressure or even a diminished sense of danger can make using seem less dangerous.3
- Co-Morbidities – People who have a co-morbid mental health issue such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD are at higher risk to have a substance abuse issue.6
Addiction Is A Family Problem
Addiction doesn’t happen in isolation. Every person with an addiction is someone’s child, spouse, parent, sibling, or friend. Addiction affects the person and the people who love and care for them. It can create rifts in even the most loving families. Dealing with a loved one’s addiction is stressful. Not every family member will see the addiction the same way or cope with it in the same way.
- Parents of an Addicted Child – For parents dealing with a child’s addiction (often an adult child), it can be confusing and painful. On one hand, they may feel responsible for the problem or for making sure their child is safe and supported. On the other hand, that support can unintentionally become a source of enabling. They may take criticism from other family members for giving their child too many chances.
- Siblings with an Addicted Loved One – Siblings often express feeling as if they bear the brunt of the family’s response to the addiction. Parents focus so intently on the person’s addiction that they may feel left out or unheard. They may love their sibling but feel angry, confused, or resentful about the situation.
- Children of Addicted Parents – Children who have a parent with an addiction grow up in an unpredictable environment. They are at higher risk for violence or abuse. Home is not always emotionally supportive and sometimes, they are required to take on responsibilities or deal with grown-up issues they aren’t ready for. The result is an impact on their social and emotional development as well as an eroded sense of trust.
Understanding what addiction is and how it develops can help you and your loved ones separate the person from the addiction. When you can do that, you are able to see the person you love still there and worthy of love and care, even when their behavior hard to understand. Knowing what to do to help move someone towards recovery is not always clear. That’s where an addictions expert can help.
Whether you’re seeking care for yourself or for a loved one, the expert clinical team at All Points North Lodge is here to help you take the next step towards healing and recovery. We offer programs designed for addictions and mental health disorders. Nestled in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, APN Lodge offers a luxury rehab experience that offers the perfect environment for healing, personal growth, and recovery. Using evidence-based treatment approaches, our team of clinicians has the expertise to guide you through the process from referral through program completion. To learn about all that the APN Lodge experience offers, reach out to one of our Contact Center team members at 866-525-9107. Let us help you find your way forward.
1. ASAM definition of addiction. (2019). ASAM.https://www.asam.org/Quality-Science/definition-of-addiction
2. Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., & Wang, G. J. (2003). The addicted human brain: insights from imaging studies.The Journal of clinical investigation,111(10), 1444–1451.https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI18533
3. National Institutes of Health. (2017, September 8). Biology of addiction. NIH News in Health.https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2015/10/biology-addiction
4. Bevilacqua, L., & Goldman, D. (2009). Genes and addictions.Clinical pharmacology and therapeutics,85(4), 359–361.https://doi.org/10.1038/clpt.2009.6
5. Biederman,J., Faraone,S.V., Monuteaux,M.C., & Feighner,J.A. (2000). Patterns of alcohol and drug use in adolescents can be predicted by parental substance use disorders.PEDIATRICS,106(4), 792-797.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11015524/
6. National Institutes of Health. (2020, May 28).Part 1: The connection between substance use disorders and mental illness. National Institute on Drug Abuse.https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness