Addiction is a disease that is characterized as the need to compulsively seek out addictive substances, even at the cost of someone’s health and happiness. It is a chronic disease too, one with a high risk of relapse, and causes long-term health effects on the brain and the body. Without treatment, it is a fatal disease.
How Addiction Works
While a person voluntarily consumes drugs or alcohol, the nature of these substances changes how the brain works; eventually a person start taking drugs involuntarily. That’s because drugs target the part of the brain called the “reward center,” which “rewards” us with a chemical called dopamine when we do pleasurable things, and encourages us to do those behaviors again.
Drugs mess that system up, though it may not seem like it at first. When someone takes drugs, it floods the brain’s reward center with dopamine, giving a person a euphoric high that is two to 10 times greater than other activities. Due to the nature of the brain’s reward center this means they are immediately predisposed to do that pleasurable act again and that’s what starts a person down the path to addiction.
As a person uses more and more drugs, brain stops releasing dopamine on its own, instead relying on the drug to do so. A person no longer feels pleasure from everyday activities and sometimes they don’t feel anything at all unless they take the drugs. However, even that doesn’t last long as the brain becomes more tolerant of a drug, and a person has to take more and more of a substance to get their dopamine levels up to normal. The brain learns that taking drugs is the only way to get dopamine levels up and that’s when the compulsive nature of addiction sets in.
Addiction can take over a person’s life, in that everything they do becomes about getting drugs at the expense of work, family, friends and more.
A person cannot be cured of addiction simply by stopping their drug use. A person struggling with addiction doesn’t know how to live without the drug and needs to learn how to again. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment plan either, nor is there a “cure,” as a person will always be at risk for relapse. A person struggling with addiction needs a long-term personalized treatment plan that addresses not only their addiction, but also any co-occurring illnesses, such as depression, and gives them the tools they need to learn how to live drug-free. Their treatment plan may evolve over time as well.
While treatment plans must be personalized for every patient, there are two general steps for addiction treatment. These are detoxification and therapy.