Understanding Addiction as a Brain Disease

January 6th, 2017

A common misperception of drug addicts is that as individual’s, they lack willpower and deserve to be judged for this self inflicted behaviour and its consequences. Scientific research says otherwise, stating that addiction is a chronic disorder which can be treated much like other chronic illnesses can be treated.

Addiction is a chronic disorder

Addicts cannot control their desperate need for drugs regardless of the results of their addiction. This lack of control has been caused by the changes in the brain due to excessive drug use and contributes towards the behavioural changes.

Dr Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States, believes that the brains of people who are addicted have been modified by the drugs. She says, “Absence of the drug makes a signal to their brain that is equivalent to the signal of when you are starving.” She says that the signal is so powerful that the individual’s state of deprivation causes him to believe that it is absolutely necessary to take the drug for survival.

With prolonged use, addictions become more serious. The addictive progression is measured by the following:

  • Amount of drug used
  • Frequency of drug use
  • Context of drug use

As the condition worsens, addicts require more drugs, more often and they use drugs in circumstances where they never would have in earlier times. As this more risky drug use increases so do the consequences thereof and the illness becomes more difficult to treat. The resulting health ailments, social, financial, legal and family consequences become worse and everything spirals downward.

Having said all of this and painted a realistically bleak picture of an actively addicted person, please understand that none of this excuses the addict to a life of helpless victim. The individual needs to take responsibility for his or her own behaviour and recovery from addiction. However, it does explain how an addict cannot stop drug abuse by force of will alone.

Understanding addiction as a brain disease

In order to understand that addiction is a brain disease, it helps to look at other chronic diseases and draw parallels. Asthma, diabetes and hypertension are all influenced to a large degree by eating patterns, exercise, smoking, drinking and other behaviours. The patient cannot help certain parts of the illness, however he needs to take responsibility and care for his body in a way that aids recovery. It is the same with the addict.

Whilst addicted people are not responsible for their illness, they are responsible for their recovery. People in recovery from addiction need to take responsibility for the initial choice to try drugs. What other choice could they have made to deal with their fears and struggles etc. Once addicted though, his or her brain has been altered by prolonged drug use and their addiction takes on a life of its own. However, with the right kinds of support and proper addiction treatment, the addicted person can begin to make the right choices for recovery and follow them through.

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