An Overview of This Destructive Disease

The media has created an image of addiction as struggling urban dwellers, desperate and living on the streets. Unfortunately, much of society still sees addiction that way and often as the fault of the sufferer.

Addiction is actually a disease of the brain. It doesn’t care how intelligent or educated you are or how much money you have in the bank. It crosses all socioeconomic boundaries without prejudice.

Drugs and alcohol can drastically alter the brain and make compulsive behavior harder to overcome. Often, addicts are unable to control their behavior and continuing using, despite destructive consequences.

How Does Addiction Develop?

In the early 20th century, most people believed addiction stemmed from a lack of willpower. However, as medical technology advanced and doctors began to understand how addiction works physiologically, the perception of addiction changed.

Today, we know addiction develops when drugs or alcohol override the brain’s reward center, or limbic system. And though outside factors are often involved – such as PTSD, abuse or psychological trauma – addiction is now considered a disease, not a behavioral issue.

The delivery of dopamine from the limbic system reorganizes a healthy brain into a dysfunctional one. Those who suffer from addiction can become physiologically unable to abstain from their substance(s) of choice. Moreover, one addiction often leads to another.

The Genetic Factors of Addiction

Genetics are complex, and their role in addiction is still being researched, but it is clear that family history often plays a part in addiction. Parents who have the disease are more likely to have children who are at risk. The underlying genes may produce a complex set of behaviors that are interrelated, based on chemistry and environmental factors. In this sense, genes are like a behavioral template, but there are variables as to what fills in that template.

What Does Addiction Feel Like?

Often, addiction develops because a person is trying to fill a void – psychologically, emotionally or physically. Many addicts are chronic pain sufferers who have been unable to control the intensity of their physical discomfort. For them, drugs or alcohol can provide temporary relief.

Those suffering from addiction often describe a feeling of loneliness or desperation, as well as a sense of fear that only seems to go away when their addiction is being fed. The sense of euphoria or high that comes from using leads many addicts to consume their substance of choice more frequently and in higher doses, sometimes with catastrophic results.

How Addiction Affects American Households Statistic Infographic