What Does Addiction Mean?
“Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite devastating consequences.” Nora Volkow M.D., NIDA
What does Addiction mean?
The disease of addiction is a chemical brain disorder causing repeated use of a drug, alcohol or a behavior (gambling) that is no longer voluntary. Addicts use compulsively, without control over their behavior. Often an addict is in strong denial of their loss of control.
A classic description of addiction is as follows. “Use despite harm.”
Why would people continue to do something that is causing so much harm, to themselves, their work, families? It doesn’t make sense to see people destroying themselves, and unwilling or unable to change their behavior.
The answer to this question lies in a chemical wiring pathway which resides deep within the brain.
The use of a drug or alcohol leads to an increase in the brain chemical dopamine. The increase of dopamine in the brain causes feelings of pleasure or wellness. This dopamine surge causes the experience of “getting high”.
When the dopamine increase goes away, the brain’s dopamine level falls back to below the ‘normal’ level. This causes people to feel bad, or down. These dysphoric feelings of emptiness lead to the inability to experience pleasure without the use of the drug.
The brain of someone who is using drugs or alcohol remembers the feeling of getting high. Over a very short period of time the brain imprints a memory that the way to make the brain feel normal again is to use the drug.
Repeated use over months and years leads to profound physical and psychiatric changes. Behavior that starts off as ‘partying’ or drug use and abuse, with the addict demonstrating some limits or control, over develops into addiction. The brain of the addict is driving the addict to continue to use to maintain the artificial ‘normal’ level of dopamine.
What is difficult to accept for many people, is the addict, deep within their addictive disease, sees discontinuation of their drug of choice as an anti-survival decision. The roller-coaster of dopamine clouds rational judgment about the truth.
In addition, the brain of an addict remembers the feeling of getting high. The brain triggers the clean and sober addict to think about using, particularly when stress or uncomfortable emotions occur. One of the greatest challenges in Addiction medicine is helping patients stay clean and sober in spite of the brain wiring imprint which occurs from repeated chemical use.
Much has been studied and written about the disease of addiction. Scientists know many people have an increased risk for becoming addicted to something. Often, patterns of addictive disease are seen to run in family groupings. Often addiction is an isolated event independent from family connection. We understand that the disease of addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Hazelden’s physicians and staff view the disease of addiction as a part of the human condition. All patients in all phases of the substance use continuum are at risk for progression to addiction. We believe all patients deserve confidential, compassionate care with the most up-to-date technology available. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns regarding yourself or a loved one.