Until recently, outward behavior was the primary focus of defining addiction. With a shift to studying and recognizing how addiction changes the brain, a new definition quickly emerged. Let’s look at why addiction is now considered a disease of the brain, not a behavioral problem.
Addiction is considered a disease of the brain, rather than a behavioral disorder, due to the changes made to the brain by drug or alcohol use. Addiction alters the brain’s reward system, making motivation and feeling pleasure difficult without the use of substances. Impulse control and judgment are also affected by addiction, leading to the persistent use of substances even when a person recognizes that harm those substances are creating. Treatment for addiction is recommended and a vital step in healing the brain and the body and starting a long-term recovery plan.
Addiction changes the brain.
Long-term substance use creates changes to the brain in key regions and related to specific functions. These brain changes make ending substance use more challenging for a person. For example, routine substance use affects the basal ganglia’s function for motor control, executive functions and behaviors, and emotions. Basal ganglia can adapt to substance use as a motivation and help form the habit.
Substance use can also affect the extended amygdala, making the part of the brain which helps regulate stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and uneasiness far more sensitive. The amygdala then communicates that more substance use is the path to relief from these stressful feelings. Addiction also affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for the ability to plan, think, solve problems, make decisions, and exhibit self-control.
Addiction alters the brain’s reward system.
The brain’s reward system is affected by substance use over time. Regular use of drugs or alcohol desensitizes that reward system. The result changes a person’s ability to remain motivated or feel pleasure without the use of substances. People, activities, music, food, and other stimuli used to help a person feel good can no longer achieve that effect. The lower sensitivity of the brain’s reward system ends up encouraging a person to return to higher levels of drug use to achieve the same good feelings as before.
Addiction alters impulse control and judgment.
The brain function determines behavior, so it’s reasonable to see a change in brain function can change a person’s behavior. For instance, the areas of impulse control and judgment are affected by drinking and drug use. Not being able to stop using substances can come from a loss of impulse control and judgment, even when you know, it’s harmful to you. For someone who’s already in recovery, these changes to the brain can lead to relapse.
Addiction increases the strength and intensity of conditioned responses.
One conditioned response to stress can be drinking. When a person feels stressed and resorts to alcohol to cope with those feelings, they’re shaping future responses in the same way. This kind of brain change produces stronger cravings for alcohol or other drugs. It can also intensify negative emotions when substances are unavailable. Someone whose brain only focuses on the conditioned response of alcohol or drugs won’t seek out other ways to cope with strong negative feelings or cravings.
Addiction creates cognitive changes.
Cognitive skills, which include reading, learning, remembering, logical reasoning, and paying attention, can be affected by addiction. A preoccupation with a substance or behavior related to drinking or drug use is one example. A person with addiction may experience altered logical reasoning about the pros and cons of their drinking or drug use. They may also falsely believe that their problems in relationships, finances, work, or the legal system are unrelated to their addiction.
Addiction recovery requires treatment.
Because addiction is a brain disease, it requires a form of treatment that helps the brain in the recovery process. It’s not enough to stop drinking or using drugs. Sustaining recovery long-term involves addressing the factors that created the addictive behavior and treating them. That treatment can involve the physical dependence as well as the mental health factors, such as depression or anxiety, that contributed to a person abusing substances.
Hannah’s House is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety.
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