Drug addiction isn’t simply about wrong choices, moral failure or will power. It is a chronic illness, similar to diabetes or heart disease. Drug abuse tricks the brain’s reward system and causes damage to your long term memory — one reason why relapse is common and expected. Cultural influence also fuels addiction — explaining why some are more at risk than others. This article provides a basic understanding of drug addiction.
What is Drug Addiction?
Drug Abuse. Substance Abuse. Dependence.
Millions of addicts identify themselves by these terms everyday. You may be one of them. All to often, addiction carries a negative stigma.
Are you a bad person? A moral failure? Why don’t you just stop using? You have will power. Right?
You’re likely one of two people…
- You’re addicted to drugs, or
- You know a loved one who is.
You’re not alone.
In fact: As of 2013, approximately 24.6 million Americans have used illicit drugs. Not to mention prescription drug abuse. That is nearly 8% of the U.S. population. It also happens to be quite a financial burden on society as well. (src: drugabuse.gov)
- Overall cost of substance abuse in U.S. tops $600 billion annually
- $193 billion in illicit drugs
- $193 billion in tabacco
- $235 billion in alcohol
Is Drug Abuse a Moral Failure?
You know that choices do play a part in substance abuse. But you would be making a mistake if you didn’t realize that it’s much more.
In fact: Recently, scientific advancement has shown that drug addiction isn’t just a lack of “self-control” or a matter of making the wrong decisions.
Its actually more complex and involves the study of human nature, biology and culture.
If you are an addict, you likely blame yourself for the decisions you’ve made. At the other extreme, you may realize it’s something you can’t help, and so you “pass the buck” or “give up” by placing blame elsewhere. Either belief system is damaging, and it’s important to find a balance.
So…where do we start?
We need a thorough understanding of addiction. It’s important to understand the scientific and cultural implications. By knowing the truth about drug addiction, you’ll have a starting point to begin your journey toward a life of freedom. There is one Bible verse that puts it very well…
“…the truth will set you free”
First, we’re going to explore how your brain works and the effects of drugs on the brain. Later, you’ll learn how culture and childhood contributed to your addiction.
First things first…
Drug Addiction is a Chronic Disease
That’s right. Just like people suffer from major organ diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart failure — your addiction is classified as a brain disease.
“Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.”
The Good news? It’s not about moral failure or will power.
In order to understand this concept, we need to learn…
How the Brain Works on Drugs
The Brain is the Headquarters for all your body’s communication.
Your brain is the headquarters for the nervous system that communicates with your body. It’s made up of billions of tiny neurons or nerve cells. We need to know these different part of the brain in order to understand how drugs manipulate them.
Let’s Explore how the Brain Communicates
The Nerve Cell: The nervous system is made up of “Nerve Cells” or “Neurons.” These neurons communication with each other relaying messages throughout the body. They communicate through electrochemical messages. The are called…neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells. The primary neurotransmitter affecting drug addicts is “dopamine.”
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is part of your brain’s reward system. Its activated when something pleasurable happens. It also effects other functions like movement, emotion and motivation. This is why you may experience dizziness, anger or depression while taking drugs.
Receptors: Receptors are found on the neuron and receive messages. They only accept neurotransmitters that fit. At this stage, the “message” has been delivered from neuron to neuron.
Transporters: Transporters complete the loop of communication between cells by pulling the neurotransmitter back to their original neuron. Transporters then recycle the neurotransmitters for later use.
In a nut shell…
Your nerves communicate using messengers called neurotransmitters. They are accepted by receptors and then brought back by transporters to be used again. This process happens very fast and on a large scale. Your brain has large networks of these communicating neurons.
One of these networks is called the…
Brain’s Reward System
(Note: The brain’s reward system is actually made up of several nerve systems working together.)
Do you remember the first time you tasted a favorite food? You thought it was amazing.
It was so good you had several helpings.
Why did you eat so much?
When you ate the first bite, the neurotransmitter dopamine was activated and your brain stored that memory. The next time you encountered the food, your brain immediately knew how good it was and the way it made you feel. You were then prompted to eat it again!
The reward system is the ultimate learning software.
Normally, your reward system is activated when it experiences natural pleasures like eating food, winning a baseball game, sex, or social interaction.
The reward system gives you motivation and incentive to keep doing things that are good and provide pleasure. If these instincts didn’t exist, you would have not motivation. This portion of our brain is designed to help keep us alive.
Properly run, the reward system is a good thing.
but then there is…
Drugs and the Brain
Drugs abuse and trick your reward system.
Drugs work in one of two ways…depending on the type of drug.
- The Copycat Drug: Copycat drugs, like marijuana and heroin, imitate the brain’s neurotransmitters. Because these drugs are not natural to the brain, it causes unusual messages to pass between neurons.
- The Simulator Drug: The simulators “excite” nerve cells causing them to flood the brain with an excess of neurotransmitters (mostly dopamine). Additionally, these drugs also prevent the transporters from working properly which contributes to more flooding. Drugs that do this are cocaine and methamphetamine — among others.
This unnatural increase and imitation of neurotransmitters causes the brain to react and reduce the production of our natural neurotransmitters. It may also reduce the amount of dopamine receptors.
Daily Pleasures Become Dull
Now, feeling pleasure in normal activities like eating and sex becomes difficult because the brain’s reward system has been abused and now needs more dopamine.
As a result… you will need the drug to feel even normal pleasure again!
Furthermore, if you want to experience a “high,” it’ll take more of the drug than previously used. As this process continues, the addict builds up a “tolerance” to the drug.
This path begins a vicious cycle. One that is hard to break.
This is how drug addiction works.
Why Relapsing is So Common
Relapsing is the returning to a drug after quitting for a period of time.
Long Term Memory and the Reward System
Because the Reward System is a big part of our long term memory,it becomes increasingly hard to stop using the drug. When you see or smell the drug, you remember how it made you feel.
These moments of seeing something or smelling something that reminds you of that feeling are called “triggers.”
Even when you’ve been “off the substance” for weeks, months or years it can be difficult to resist because of your long term memory. That’s why it is often necessary to find a sobriety house or treatment center to help you make a clean break.
There is where the “rubber” meets the “road.”
The Hard Truth About Recovery
Many think that addicts can just “change their ways” or “try harder.” The problem with that way of thinking is that once a person is addicted, it is “hard-wired” into their brain, making it nearly impossible to completely “be healed.”
That is why it has been categorized as a disease. And like many diseases, is treatable, but very difficult to cure.
Now that we understand the science behind addiction, we’ll explore the risks of addiction. Knowing how people are at risk to substance abuse gives us a deeper understanding of addiction from a cultural standpoint.
Addiction Risk: Cultural Influence
Now that we understand how drugs affect the brain, let’s explore how cultural influence play a part in your drug addiction. This may include someone’s upbringing, their genes, surroundings and more.
Culture: Your Heritage
Research has shown that your drug addiction may be rooted in your cultural background. For example, if you’re an immigrant to America or a Native American your risk of drug addiction may be higher than others.
According to the PyschciatricTimes, when individuals from a specifical culture experience a major change in environment or identity, they are more likely to participate in drug abuse. This is seen in many immigrants who move outside their normal protective environment. It is also seen in the Native American community where much of their traditional culture has been lost over time. (full article)
Unfortunately, these cultures can experience generational addiction to drugs because of the way we as humans pass on our traits, behaviors and beliefs on to the next generation.
Culture: Your Family Tree
It may be difficult to believe that something that happened so long ago can affect people to this day. However, this helps us understand the risk of addiction on a family level. You don’t have to be from a Native American heritage to be addicted.
If you’re from a family who’s had a history of drug addiction, then your risk is much higher for addiction as well. This happens when parents pass on their outlook on life, their beliefs and their traditions on to their children. They don’t intentionally pass on “traits” of drug addiction but it gets passed through their attitude and actions. Knowing this can go a long way in helping you understand your addiction.
Not all are in a position to change their environment, but by understanding it we can see it for what it is and takes steps to change the family tree.
Culture: Immediate Surroundings
We’ve learned that your heritage and genes may put you at risk for drug abuse. This leads us into your immediate surrounding — how you were raised, how your family treated you, your school environments and many more risks. For example, if you were abused at home and experienced bullying at school, the risks of drug addiction were much higher for you. Peer pressure and lack of security or powerful things.
Family and friends have a huge influence on the risk level of drug addiction. It’s important to develop healthy relationships with family and friends if possible.
The Good News
Having a working knowledge of Drug Addiction is the best place to start toward your recovery. We’ve learned that it’s not just about making bad decisions or having the “will-power.” Your addiction problem is also a disease that needs to be treated like one. Culture and society around you have also played a role in your addiction and explain your struggle. But knowing these things we can make actionable decisions that result in a better a more successful recovery.
By switching the storyline around, you can live a fuller life.
The old story line says: “If you just have enough will-power or discipline, you can stop your drug abuse and have a life of freedom.”
The new story line says: “Armed with this knowledge about myself, how my brain works and the effects of culture around me, I am now better equipped to ask the right questions and get the right help.”
It’s not just about will-power. It’s about improving your life on all fronts in order to make it further down the path of recovery and lead a successful and happy life.
From here, you can start asking questions and helping loved ones from the right perspective that doesn’t involve judging and accusation. But from the perspective of understanding drug addiction and providing REAL help.
If you’ve gained some help from this article, we’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments.
PDF Version: Understanding Drug Addiction & Abuse