Addiction has not always been viewed as a disease or brain disorder. In fact, it used to be viewed as a war of only willpower against which we needed to fight. Now, we know that people make the initial choice to use substances, but over time use changes the brain, making it continually crave substances. Chronic use can become a disease of the mind if it develops into an addiction, one which makes a person fight daily to avoid further use, and one which requires treatment for a person to recover.
Addiction: A Brain Disorder
First, it is necessary to comprehend how the brain functions. The brain essentially works by utilizing brain cells (neurons) to send messages to other brain cells by releasing a chemical (neurotransmitter). As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “drugs are chemicals that affect the brain by tapping into its communication system and interfering with the way neurons normally send, receive, and process information.” In fact, the chemicals in certain drugs can actually mimic neurotransmitters and the way they work, effectively tricking the brain’s receptors, which allow the chemicals to attach to and activate the neurons. But the chemicals in these drugs only mimic the way that chemicals in the brain works. In other words, though chemicals from drugs may act like those of the brain, they can only imitate them, and this means they will never function in the same way as the naturally occurring chemicals in the brain. This difference causes the brain’s communication system to transmit messages that do not work like regular ones. As NIDA states, “this disruption produces a greatly amplified message, ultimately disrupting communication channels.” Substances do more than just stop the normal communication in the brain, though. They also produce an excess of dopamine, resulting in a feeling of euphoria (reward). It is this euphoric feeling that changes the brain. A person’s body enjoys the feeling of euphoria because the brain enjoys it, even if that feeling is short-lived. That is why a person abusing substances often continues to seek use; the brain prompts him or her to seek that euphoric feeling again and again. Eventually the brain struggles to produce its own naturally occurring chemicals and a physical dependence is formed. When this is paired with compulsive drug seeking and other behaviors, an addiction is present.
Can You Treat A Brain Disorder?
To treat an addiction, along with overcoming the physical effects of withdrawal, a person must overcome the effects on his or her brain. At best, a person must train his or her brain to function without substance use and retrain the brain to seek rewards through other avenues. It is the reason so many alcohol treatment methods involve behavioral therapy or guiding a person to build a lifestyle free from drugs or alcohol. As with many diseases, if a person successfully treats substance use, that person can be in remission. In fact, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) suggests the term “remission” for addiction, defining it as “a state of wellness where there is an abatement of signs and symptoms that characterize active addiction.” The fact that is important to note is that, as with other diseases, relapse is a possibility. In fact, relapse is highly likely. That is why treatment is so important. [middle-callout] It would not be expected of someone with a mental health disorder to overcome the condition and be cured. In truth, the term “cure” is not commonplace within the treatment of mental health disorders. Instead, treatment focuses on helping a person learn how to manage both the disease and their life more effectively in the long term. Neither should a cure be expected of substance use disorders. Treatment is effective, and more and better methods are developed all the time to help people overcome addiction. However, ultimately treating substance use means building a life in which a person can deal with the long-term effects of drugs or alcohol. These effects may include the changes to the brain. It can often be a daily struggle for years to come, avoiding substances, but it is something that can be worthwhile.
With millions of people struggling in the United States every year, it cannot be denied that addiction is a disease which affects many. Yet so few of these people get the treatment they need to free themselves from substance use. Any time a person has a health condition, it is best to seek the proper treatment, and this is also true for substance use disorders. As Psychology Today states, “Despite our national obsession with quick fixes, there’s no simple solution to our country’s drug problem. We have to recognize that addiction, like diabetes and cancer, is here to stay. By accepting this fact, we can work to improve addiction treatment rather than waging war against drug users.” If you have been suffering from addiction and are wondering if there is a way you can reach remission, we are here to show you that there is hope. Contact us today at Vertava Health to learn more about treatment options, find connections to resources, and speak to professionals about your concerns.