Growing up, we’re taught to discern right from wrong. We’re given a loose guideline from our parents or guardians as to what she be labeled ‘right’ and what should be labeled ‘wrong’. One thing we’re taught growing up is that abusing substances, like alcohol or drugs, is wrong. However, this doesn’t always mean we follow through. If we know that abusing these substances is wrong, why do we have such a problem with addiction in this world? Today, we’re going to talk about the science behind addiction to better understand why it happens and why we need to change our overall view on the subject.

What is Addiction?

Before we get into the science behind addiction, we first need to define what it is exactly. Addiction is quite simply defined as a brain disorder characterized by the compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite negative consequences. Just as we mentioned earlier, it’s something that people struggle with despite knowing the adverse side-effects. This disorder essentially becomes a compulsive need to become inebriated. A person who has developed an addiction will more than likely focus much of their time and energy on using drugs or alcohol. Even though addiction is known to cause serious mental and physical side-effects, a person who has this disorder will continue to use. Not only does addiction have significant effects on a person’s physical and mental health, but it can have great effects on other social aspects of their lives. People who suffer from addiction often see relationships crumble, jobs being lost, education slipping through the cracks, and many other adverse side-effects. Since people seemingly choose to continue their habitual abuse of drugs and/or alcohol despite knowing the side-effects, people assume that addiction is a choice. However, it is not so simple. Addiction is not a matter of free-will or choice, it’s a matter of chemistry and science.

The Stigma That Surrounds Addiction

What many of you might not realize is that there is a massive stigma that surrounds addiction. Many of us, as we previously mentioned, have been brought up to believe that addiction is a matter of free-will and choice. But what if we told you that this was all wrong? Yes, there is a small amount of free-will that goes into addiction, but for the most part, addiction is a disease that directly affects the way a person makes decisions. This stigma was more than likely created through the classic “Say No To Drugs” movement or the PSAs on television that used scare tactics in an effort to get people to stop the abuse of drugs/alcohol. Though these two things had the right motivation, they may have gone about things the wrong way. Rather than scaring people out of addiction, we should be educating people so they know what kind of effects this horrible disease can have on them. Because there is this stigma that surrounds addiction, many addicts are afraid to seek help because they are afraid of being seen as someone who can’t make good decisions. This kind of stigma only creates embarrassment and further pushes someone into their addictive habits. If we provide people with the proper education on the science behind addiction and how it happens, we can better help eliminate the issue.

How Does Addiction Work?

Addiction is a disease that can be caused by a lot of things. The main three factors we put into consideration when discussing the development of addiction are behavioral, environmental, and biological. These three factors play the biggest role in the development of substance abuse disorders for people, so let’s discuss what they look like and how they can cause addictive behaviors.

  • Behavioral: What role exactly does behavior play in the development of addiction? Well, think about this for a second .. when we perform an action, our brains will determine whether or not that action is rewarding or not. If you eat some delicious food, you feel happy because your brain is rewarding you for performing a stimulating action. If you get 4 hours of sleep in one night, you’re going to feel exhausted and be in a sour mood because your brain is not going to reward you for having a lack of sleep. This is our brain’s way of telling us if our actions are beneficial to our well-being. Unfortunately, the high a person gets from drugs and the feeling of drunkenness from alcohol are actions our brains perceive as rewarding. Because they are perceived as rewarding to our well-being, our brains release what is called dopamine, which the chemical compound that creates happiness. So, if our brains are saying “yes, this is good!”, it would be hard to stop. This is one reason why addiction is not necessarily a matter of free-will. 
  • Environmental: Have you ever heard the term “nature vs. nurture”? Well, that term directly applies to what we’re talking about in terms of environmental factors in addiction development. The idea behind this term is that there is a debate between whether or not people are the way they are due to environment or biological makeup. In this case, we’re talking about environment. What many people fail to realize is that the environment they are brought up in, the way they are raised, and the people they’ve surrounded by play a huge role in something like addiction. If a person is brought up by parents who abuse substances or end up in friend groups that actively abuse substances, they are more likely to pick up the same habits. If a person is raised in a family that doesn’t openly discuss their issues, they could be less likely to want help if they develop an addiction. There are a lot of issues that environment can cause, depending of course on what that environment looks like. 
  • Biological: Continuing on with the nature vs. nurture topic, our next factor fits in perfectly with the nature side of the argument. Not only can environment have a significant effect on the development of addictive behaviors, but so can biology. Genetics play a huge role in the development of addiction because addiction can be a hereditary thing. If a person has had family members that suffered from addictions, they are far more likely to develop one themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will, but if they start engaging in activities that are similar to that of their addicted family members, they are extremely susceptible to developing a substance abuse disorder. 

We hope by providing this information on the science behind addiction that you can help us eliminate the stigma that surrounds it. By eliminating the stigma, we can continue the fight against this horrible disease and help the people that need it the most. 

Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2007. Call 602-346-9142.

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