What is Addiction?

For a disease that strikes so many, addiction is still surprisingly misunderstood. Here are the things everyone should know.

An Honest Look at Addiction

Addiction is the continued use of alcohol and other drugs even when that use is causing harm. It is a disease of the mind, body and spirit. It is a physical and psychological craving or compulsion to use a mood-altering substance. Addiction is a primary disease, which means it is not the result of some other problem. For example, addiction is not caused by a bad marriage, boss or teacher. Addiction is also progressive (if unaddressed, it will get worse), chronic (there is no cure, but it can be managed), and potentially fatal.

What are the symptoms of addiction?

Addiction can lead to consequences in virtually every area of life. You may see problems socially, emotionally, physically, financially, legally, at work, at school and at home with the family. Other major warning signs include craving for the substance, increase in tolerance, preoccupation with the substance, and loss of control. A person struggling also may resort to denial and rationalization in all its forms, including blame, excuses and minimization.

What's going on in the brain?

Research has shown that addiction is not a matter of an individual strength, moral character or willpower. Instead, it can be attributed to the way an individual brain becomes wired. Long-term use of alcohol and other drugs actually changes the brain. Substance use increases the release of a powerful chemical called dopamine. Over time, if dopamine is routinely in abundance, the brain attempts to balance things out by producing less dopamine naturally. At that point, the brain is relying on substances to trigger the release of dopamine. That is when individuals start to use alcohol and other drugs just to feel normal.

This all takes place in an area of the brain we call the reward center the same place that regulates and reinforces natural rewards that are vital to our existence, such as food and sex. That is why the addicted brain can pursue alcohol and other drugs as if they are needed for mere survival, and why people with addiction can place that pursuit irrationally above almost all other priorities.

Why can't some people stop using alcohol and other drugs?

Without help, most people suffering from the disease of addiction can't stop using, even when faced with severe consequences like losing their job, their family, or even their life. Their mind and body react to alcohol and other drugs sometimes even just the thought of them with an uncontrollable compulsion for more. Help is needed to re-balance the brain's chemicals and to adjust emotionally and spiritually to a life of abstinence.

Additional Points

Many social, psychological, genetic and other factors make some people more vulnerable than others to developing addiction. No one chooses to develop the disease. Two people may start out using similarly and one may progress to addiction, based on those variety of factors, while one may not.

People who have developed addiction can no longer use alcohol and other drugs like others do. Their brain chemistry has changed in a way that can be brought back into balance but that will always be vulnerable to resumed use.

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