Addiction explained: An obsession that could cost you your life

understanding addiction

The dictum of addiction

The origin of the word “addiction” has a surprisingly positive meaning. The name of this condition, which plagues millions worldwide, actually comes from the Latin word “addictus”, which literally refers to complete surrender to God and divinity.

Legend has it that in ancient Greece and Rome, people thronged to experience a transcendental oneness with the higher power. Many of them were authorized to do so by taking help of “mind-altering” substances.

Widespread consumption of hallucinogens to achieve a nirvanic state was highly exalted by many cultures. People on hallucinogens and other mind-altering drugs, at times, exhibited seemingly intellectual and mystical behavior.

With so much revere and enigma built around them, these souvenirs of so-called higher consciousness became an element of massive psychosocial attraction.

Experts contend that addiction is a disorder of “altered cognition”.

In simple terms, the regions of brain heavily influenced by drug addiction are the ones which are responsible for our overall cognitive potential. Learning, communication, reasoning, impulse control, memory – all these functions, thus, remain severely affected by drug obsession.

An addict’s brain is neurologically different from a normal brain. His/her behavior is completely shaped by the pursuit of reward (in this case, the addictive substance). While on the surface it may seem as a trivial issue, it can have serious repercussions.

Who amongst us isn’t motivated by the promise of reward and accolades? But, when it comes to addiction, this very inherent human tendency proves to be extremely hazardous to our mental and physical health.

Let us understand how.

Addiction & Dopamine – How it all begins

Stage 1 – The beginning of addiction

addiction brain study

When an individual consumes any addictive substance, it results in the release of dopamine or the “pleasure-giving” hormone.

This hormone is also released when we perform activities necessary for the survival such as eating or reproductive activities.

Not to mention, the larger the consumption of these addictive substances, the greater the dopamine production.

This means more intense feelings of pleasure felt by the individual.

The addict, thus, begins associating the “feel-good” emotions with the addictive substance.

This is how he/she becomes automatically hooked to a drug.

Stage 2 – When addiction becomes a disease

This is the stage where the problem of addiction becomes larger than just an increased demand for drugs. The symptoms begin showing clinical traits.

The key characteristics of an individual caught in this stage are – severe withdrawal symptoms during periods of abstinence, high probability of relapse, and the worst of all, cognitive deterioration.

The dopamine circuitry impacts the pre-frontal cortex, the region of the brain associated with decision-making and judgment.

This promotes “negative reinforcement” or manifestation of undesirable sensations when one begins to abstain from drugs.

As a matter of fact, if one is exposed to drug addiction at an earlier stage of life (childhood/adolescence), it begins even more difficult to successfully abstain since our brain becomes excessively “hard-wired” to seek out pleasure from drugs.

Your brain on drugs: Viewing addiction from a neurological point of view

dopmamine and addiction

For our brain, every pleasurable sensation is registered as the same, irrespective of what event caused it.

This implies that be it winning every hand at poker or having an intensely satisfying sexual encounter (or, even the gratification gained by a delicious buffet) – our brain translates each feel-good outcome as the same.

Unfortunately, the same thing happens when we consume a psychoactive drug.

This rush of dopamine floods the brain, prodding the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the pre-frontal cortex to a heightened level of thrill and buzz.

What does this mean?

Our brain’s primary communication unit, neuron, is made up of the axon (transmitter of information) and the dendrite (receiver of the information).

Scientists believe that almost 100 billion neurons in the human brain facilitate accurate communication within the brain. Every function in our body is dependent on how well these communication lines work. Addiction tends to deteriorate these neural channels.

As a result, each and every function including digestion, respiration, and circulation is disrupted. The damage occurs at a cellular level.

Moreover, drugs such as cocaine, codeine, methamphetamine, opioids etc. cause irreversible damage to the serotonin and dopamine circuitry. Intense pleasure is felt upon their consumption. Excessive stress and anxiety plague the individual upon abstinence.

Drug addiction alters our brain’s capability to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is nothing but the perfect balance and coherence maintained in our body between different organs systems and the external environment. Immunity, temperature regulation, and nutrition absorption worsen with time.

As mentioned before, the wrath of addiction on the decision-making center of the brain brings about behavioral changes such as complete loss of control and crude impulsiveness.

He/she gives in to fierce drug-cravings that trigger behavioral modification. The individual experiences changes in behavior and will desperately try and get access to the addictive substance.

The psychology of addiction

Irrespective of what an individual is addicted to, every addict has three common characteristic traits.

  • In spite of being aware of the negative consequences of their addiction, they still remain indifferent to it.
  • They tend to overvalue pleasurable feelings and undermine the requirement of control and discipline.
  • They remain in a state of denial when it comes to risky behavior and never seem to learn from previous instances of addiction-ridden behavior.

In light of such revelations, to have a better understanding of why such habits become addictive, imagine the thrill and excitement associated with sports. The factor of uncertainty keeps you glued to the game.

Unanticipated rewards, such as this, promote the release of dopamine. People keep coming back to watch similar games and matches, the uncertainty and the subsequent surge of dopamine being the primary cause of its appeal.

How are learning and addiction related to each other?

Learning occurs when our brain encounters something new and unexpected. The dopamine signals attach or update the relative value of different events or activities that occur around us.

Everytime something exciting or unusual happens, dopamine circuitry becomes active.

This enables the brain to form new connections and associations.

In a nutshell, the bigger the difference between the anticipated outcome and the actual outcome, the greater the learning. This is how a normal and healthy brain works.

Enter addiction

A brain that is “high” on cocaine, amphetamines, or marijuana tends to place a much higher value on the entire experience of drug-taking.

The sudden surge of dopamine is the culprit here.

All the cues and contexts inter-linked with drug-consumption pushes the mind in a state of persistent craving. So basically what happens is that addictive drugs artificially boost dopamine surges, making the individual crave for it disproportionately.

There is a fundamental imbalance between the pleasure cues which hampers learning. This is the major reason why addicts fail to understand or learn the negative consequences of addiction.

They fail to learn; hence they tend to repeat their mistakes over and over again.

Sometimes, offspring inherit it from their parents. The offspring are born with a lesser number of dopamine receptors and are hence highly likely to engage in addictive behavior.

Is addiction a chronic disease?

Yes, since there are major (and at times, irreversible) changes within the neural pathways that manifest itself in the form of behavioral and psychological disorders.

Addictive disorders tend to follow similar patterns as those of other chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Addicts require specialized care and treatment as they are prone to relapse.

An addictive substance is anything that lights up the reward center of the brain.

This includes several prescription drugs and pills, recreational drugs, habits such as gambling, drinking, and smoking.

In addition to these, seemingly harmless elements such as shopping, video gaming, sugar-consumption, and surfing the internet can also become addictive.

Is addiction a flaw of character?

No, addiction is a disorder of learning.

People shouldn’t dismiss drug addicts saying that they are acting out of selfishness or self-indulgence.

People should refrain from considering the lack of self-control exhibited by addicts as a flaw or weakness of character.

A learning disorder can occur as a result of social, environmental, and/or cultural influences. Sometimes, genetic factors may make an individual more prone to such behavior. Addicts consume drugs to experience emotional relief and gratification.

Think for a second, how a single Facebook notification or winning one hand at the roulette can instantaneously send your brain into a state of euphoria.

Every now and then you keep checking your phone to see if your Instagram post gathered more likes or not. You are more likely to place larger bets once you start winning money through gambling.

The sense of accomplishment video game marathons provide are highly addictive too.

Be it the dopamine rush after eating a cupcake or puffing a nicotine-laced cigarette, addiction occurs when your brain starts believing that the addictive substance/ habit is critical to your emotional and mental stability.

Is addiction curable?

Not always, but addiction is a highly treatable and manageable condition.

There is one word that best describes this condition – Biopsychosocial.

This clearly shows that addiction can have biological, social, and psychological origins.

Specially designed intervention systems and behavioral modification treatments can go a long way in restoring normalcy in an addict’s life.

Medication can counter the disruptive changes infused in the brain by long-term use of drugs.

Relapses will occur but one needs to be persistent with the treatment. A multi-disciplinary approach will aid the process of rehabilitation. And of course, whole-hearted support from family and friends.


TL;DR?

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