For many years, doctors, psychologists and medical scientists were completely baffled by people who were addicted to drugs or alcohol. They could help to get them sober by putting them through a medical detoxification process, but the majority of people were unable to remain so. Science today benefits from the leaps and bounds made in past years in uncovering why addicts do what they do, but there is still a stigmatization about addiction that hinders the ability of addicts to seek the help they need.
Addicts are often viewed as selfish individuals who will lie, cheat, and steal in order to maintain their addiction. Friends and families might abandon them due to the pain caused, and the stigma and shame can cost addicts their jobs and very lives. As an outsider looking in, you might not understand why an addict would continue living a certain way when their entire life has become unmanageable, but you have to look at addiction as a legitimate mental illness.
How Addiction Works
Studies have been done to better understand the mind of an addict, and many of the answers can be pinpointed to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. One of the primary functions of the prefrontal cortex is to regulate the flow of dopamine when the pleasure system in the brain is stimulated. The pleasure system is necessary to survival because it tells people to eat when they’re hungry, drink when they’re thirsty, and to continue any activity that brings pleasure. The prefrontal cortex allows a person to realize that even though food my cure their hunger, they shouldn’t over-indulge or they may get sick.
For addicts, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t function properly. When the pleasure system is stimulated by drugs or alcohol, the flow of dopamine is largely unrestrained. This makes the person mentally obsess and crave their substance of choice as if it were part of their basic needs for survival. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for self-awareness, which is why many addicts don’t seek the help they need, or live in a world of denial. You might have heard of gatherings for an alcohol intervention, and wondered why the person affected couldn’t see their own troubles. According to Intervention Services Inc., addicts are often so consumed by their addictions, a full-scale intervention is the only thing that can help bring them some clarity and outside perspective.
Genetics and Addiction
Since research has discovered which part of the brain is responsible for addiction, they’ve been able to discover that different risk factors that play a role. People with mental illness and young people are at a much greater risk of becoming addicted, but over half of the people who become addicted were genetically predisposed to the disease in the first place. This means that the abnormality with the prefrontal cortex has been passed on genetically. If a person has a history of addiction in their family, much like any other chronic illness, they have a much greater chance of becoming addicted themselves.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain never fully heals, which means that complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol is the best way for an addict to live a happier, healthier life. It’s nearly impossible for an addict to do this on their own, and the symptoms of withdrawal can be potentially dangerous, which is why an addict should seek the help of a drug and alcohol treatment center. In treatment, they’ll be able to go through a safe medical detox, and build a strong foundation of knowledge as well as tools that will help them prevent relapse when they transition back into the world.