The Factors Underlying Addiction

The US government estimates that 23.5 million Americans age 12 and over is addicted to some type of drug. Every day new waves of people pick up cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs for the first time and get themselves hooked. Thousands more light up or take a swig of booze, frown, put the cig or the glass down, and swear off drinking and smoking forever. The question which has dogged the medical and scientific communities for decades is this: why do people get so addicted? 

The best answer may be the simplest one: because drugs feel good.

Ancient Brains

According to Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are genetic factors involved in addiction. A family history of addiction may make you more susceptible to getting hooked on a particular drug. But recent findings tell us that the strength and onset of addiction are also facilitated by the pleasure centers in our brains. 

Essentially, drugs hotwire the neural pathways which have existed in human brains for thousands of years. Early hominids were programmed to respond to food and sex in definitive and proactive ways, since these activities ensured survival—and a nifty burst of pleasure chemicals. Drugs, like food and sex, also impart good feelings and stimulate the release of "feel-good" chemicals. This triggers the hominid brain to crave more of the substance in question, just as it craves food and companionship. Since drugs take advantage of these preprogrammed pathways, Dr. Volkow asserts that "everyone will become an addict if sufficiently exposed to drugs or alcohol." 

This goes a long way toward explaining non-drug addictions as well—sex, gambling, shopping, and other habits which were once simply written off as "compulsions." Advances in neuroscience and brain-scanning technology have revealed that the areas of the brain involved in assessing food-related stimuli are overactive in people with eating disorders. It could be this heightened brain activity—the flurry of neural transmissions and dopamine rewards—which gets people hooked on drugs. 

The Dopamine Connection

Neurotransmitters are chemicals which aid in the transmission of signals from one neuron (nerve cell) to the next. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter, and plays a central reward in the brain's reaction to reward-motivated behavior. When a person does something which stimulates the brain's reward system, dopamine is released and this results in a rush of pleasurable feelings. Normally dopamine binds to a neuron, transmits its pleasure signal, and is then absorbed into the neuron for later use. Yet drugs such as cocaine bind to the neuron and block it off, causing a "pileup" of dopamine which amplifies the pleasure signals. This is the root of the euphoria that drug users experience. The resulting rush of pleasure is far more intense than any other stimulus. The reward is so rich, in fact, that it eclipses everything else—sex, food, and all other types of dopamine-producing fun. 

But therein lies the problem. With protracted use, cocaine and methamphetamine can inhibit the production and reabsorption of dopamine in the brain. When this happens, there's only one way for the user to feel pleasure—do more coke or meth. This is when addiction sets in, and the odds of an overdose or some other catastrophe ripen. 

Nobler in the Mind

Anyone, even the happiest and most well-adjusted person, can get addicted to a substance such as cocaine, meth, or heroin. But the risks of addiction are amplified when an individual suffers from what medical professionals call a "co-occurring disorder": bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia. People tormented by their psychological maladies will do anything to make themselves feel better. Someone with bipolar disorder may feel that drugs are the only substances which can halt the emotional roller coaster he or she's riding. A person suffering from depression might think that cocaine or meth's euphoric sensations are the perfect escape from sorrow. Such psychological vulnerability makes it even easier for addiction to take root. When people take drugs to relieve stress, chase away the blues, or make themselves feel "normal," they open the door to dependency. Genetics, social pressures, a person's environment, and their emotional state may all conspire to tempt a person into using drugs—but it's this system of dopamine rewards which locks a person into addiction. 

Given neurologists' recent discoveries about the way our brains are wired, and the brain's system of rewarding us for pleasurable acts, it's no surprise that more than 23 million people in the U.S. have become addicted to certain substances. The best way to avoid addiction before it sets in is to find constructive ways of managing stress and emotional pressures. Yoga, meditation, and exercise all release dopamine into the brain naturally, without the negative side effects of harsh chemicals. Therapy or counseling is another way to reconcile reality with your emotional state. Rather than fleeing your problems and issues and embracing drugs, confront them and master them with the help of a trained therapist. Lifestyle maintenance, hobbies, and knowledge of your family's potential history of drug abuse all help you stay forearmed against the onset of addiction issues. 

If you or someone you know is battling an addiction or may be soon, call our helpful representatives at (877) 257-7997 to learn what you can do to prevent it.