No More Shame: Understanding the Disease of Addiction
For years addiction and alcoholism were looked at as a moral deficiency (and for some, still is). Without the current research from prominent neuroscientists, many addicts and alcoholics were tossed aside to bitter ends such as the ineffective justice system, psychiatric wards, or death and suicide.
Today, we have very definitive evidence, in brain scans and imaging, of the difference between the brain of an addict/alcoholic and those who do not suffer from addiction. We also have further evidence linking it in similarity to a mental disorder, a title which has had its own social stigma but which is also eliciting more compassion as our understanding grows.
We can be a judgmental species, taught from a very young age, to categorize and identify degrees of comparison in what we are observing. But we are evolving and growing in our understanding, and in our freedom from the limits of judgment and closed-mindedness.
I hope if you’re reading this you might find some of this evolution in thought, and freedom from judgment, as I share some of the current findings of how Addiction can be likened to a disease or brain disorder. I’ll also cover what a conditioned stimulus is and why it plays a part in relapse, and what these findings mean for the future of treatment and the healing of such a large part of our human race.
True or False?: Addicts are more Sensitive to Drugs
Many of you might have heard of the power of Dopamine, that sought after brain chemical integral in so many systems in the human brain, in particular, the reward centers of the brain that nature put in place to keep us surviving: Food, Sex, human contact.
Dopamine reward centers are also responsible for motivation to continue along a certain action path. It was once thought that addicts and alcoholics were more sensitive to the dopamine triggers from drugs and alcohol, meaning that they received more of a reward than someone who did not suffer from addiction. Studies have shown this is false.
Current research has shown that addicts and alcoholics receive much lower production of Dopamine in their brain reward centers which negate the previous assumptions that addicts continue to use to perpetuate the high levels of dopamine.
Conditioned Stimuli- Those Seductive Stimu-lies
While it is true that even a small amount of dopamine produced from interfering substances can provide enough reward to continue using for a little while, It is not the primary factor involved in continued addiction, in the face of negative consequences.
A lot of continued use has to do with conditioned stimuli. Studies have shown that in animals who received rewards for their behavior, initially the dopamine reward centers of the brain were lit up and the animals continued to be motivated by the reward. But, eventually, the dopamine reward centers were not activated by the actual reward itself, but by the precursor to the reward. The environment, behavior, and sequence of stimuli that lead to the reward.
Translate these findings for a human brain, in the throes of addiction, that does not continue to receive dopamine from the drug itself, or at least not an amount that actually causes pleasure or reward for any length of time, and these conditioned stimuli kick in as a sort of autopilot for the brain.
These conditioned stimuli are people, places, things, emotional states associated with using. Many recovered individuals have said they had to change everything to get and stay clean, and this explains how there is some truth to that.
By changing the environment, and addressing thought patterns, unhealthy relationships, and various factors that were in place throughout use and addiction, you guard your vulnerable brain against possible dopamine production from precursors to your original dopamine inducing drug, and this is a key factor in rerouting the brain into healthier wiring for balanced dopamine production, and away from brain patterns that lead to auto-pilot drug use, at any and all costs.
Why do you think there is such a pull for addicts and alcoholics when attempting to get clean, to act out in unhealthy habits that may have come along with the addiction, or to call that old friend, or to even go back to an old town, or stomping ground. In a 12 step program, they would say that is your disease talking. In scientific studies, they might say, that is your rewired dopamine reward centers, looking for conditioned stimuli.
Disease or not Disease, that is the question
In case you’re still questioning whether the aforementioned evidence qualifies addiction as a disease or brain disorder. Let me just say that studies have also shown that the same evidence of interrupted dopamine reward systems present in addiction-ridden people, can also be found in cases of ADD, schizophrenia, and other mental disordered folks who DO NOT struggle with addiction.
These other types of mental illness do leave people more vulnerable to addiction because the initial small boost of Dopamine from substances can temporarily relieve psychiatric symptoms. Which is why there is a lot of co-occurring mental illness amongst addicts and alcoholics.
Pleasure is a Necessity, Not a Luxury
So we know dopamine is crucial for all sorts of brain functioning, including prefrontal cortex functioning, which is in charge of higher self-inspired action (executive functioning, in scientific terms). This part of the brain is also crucial to decision-making and impulse control. Dopamine is also really important in the limbic systems responsible for processing emotions, and reactions.
And what is the key ingredient of Dopamine production? Pleasure, reward. It’s important for addicts and alcoholics to begin to strengthen alternative neural pathways to good feelings, through new activities, new perspectives, and new associations with new people.
These findings, of the power of rewired dopamine systems in the brain, and the need for paying attention to conditioned stimuli, are so helpful in building effective treatment; in being able to guide those who have not been able to get clean, in new powerful ways through the knowledge of the disorder, and knowledge of what will recalibrate the brain and offer healing and hope, for each individual.
What is really needed in an effective treatment program is the right kind of support, being surrounded by those who understand the disorder, and an environment in which addicts and alcoholics can address conditioned stimuli as much as possible, and begin to practice new healthy ways of lighting up their dopamine reward centers, to enhance proper brain functioning, and begin the momentum of transformation and healing.
At Oasis Recovery Center, we stay up to date on all the current findings, and latest modalities for treating addiction, we provide compassionate support, within a new heart-centered environment, consciously structured to rebuild healthy pathways of dopamine reward centers.
We believe in the power of effective treatment and are here to offer it to those who are ready for freedom and healing. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction or alcoholism and need help, click here.