Why Can’t They Just Stop? How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

By Barbara Pierce

Addiction is a complex brain disease, which is why those who suffer from addiction can’t just stop.

When asked to define addiction, Maureen Petrie, executive director of Catholic Charities of Herkimer County, said, “I like the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s definition of addiction: ‘Addiction is a chronic disease, characterized by drug seeking, and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences.’”

Catholic Charities of Herkimer County is the lead organization in Herkimer County for alcoholism and substance abuse, offering many programs that assist in prevention and recovery.

Addiction is defined as a disease by most medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, psychological, environmental and biological factors. Genetic risk factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction.

Some addictions can be in the form of substances such as drugs or alcohol. Other addictions can be in the form of a behavior, such as shopping, gambling, watching pornography, video gaming or eating.

Addiction changes the functioning of the brain.

That’s a critically important consideration: the substance, or behavior of choice, has the ability to hijack — and even destroy —key brain regions.

Researchers have found that much of addiction’s power lies in its ability to take charge of the brain. The desired substance or behavior becomes the primary objective of the addict’s life. It interferes with their ability to resist intense urges to take the drug or the drink or pick up the dice.

“A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth,” said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism online. “The brain actually changes with addiction and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to normal. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.”

The biological basis of addiction helps to explain why people need much more than good intentions or willpower to break their addiction.

These brain changes can be persistent, which is why addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease — people in recovery are at increased risk for returning to using the substance or behavior even after years of abstinence.

Here’s how Mayoclinic.org describes addiction: “Addiction is an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior, despite negative consequences. Why is this? The reward center in the brain releases dopamine in response to a pleasurable experience. The more times people experience the behavior, the more dopamine is released and the more driven they are to return to the behavior.”

With continued use, brain structure and function are altered and the addict depends on the drug not simply to feel good, but to feel normal. For these individuals, using drugs or alcohol is no longer a choice.

When addicted, the drug user will do just about anything to obtain the drug. The drug becomes the most important part of the person’s life, overshadowing any other aspect.

“Brain imaging studies of people addicted to drugs or alcohol show decreased activity in this frontal cortex,” said Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse online. “When the frontal cortex isn’t working properly, people can’t make the decision to stop taking the drug — even if they realize the price of taking that drug may be extremely high and they might lose custody of their children or end up in jail. Nonetheless, they take it.”

Teens are especially vulnerable to possible addiction because their brains are not yet fully developed —particularly the frontal regions that help with impulse control and assessing risk. Pleasure circuits in adolescent brains also operate in overdrive, making drug and alcohol use even more rewarding and enticing. As a result, it’s crucial for young individuals to have access to support and guidance. This includes resources for drug addiction help near me, ensuring that adolescents have immediate access to professional assistance and support in their local area to address and mitigate the potential risks associated with substance misuse.

Prevention is critical to reducing the harms of addiction. To safely and effectively address alcohol dependence, it’s essential to learn the steps for alcohol detox, which form the initial phase of the recovery journey.

To treat addiction, scientists recommend Mental Health and Addiction Counseling to help people stop using specific substances and prevent relapse. Helping people break the grip of addiction is complex and requires multiple strategies. Quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will, even for those who want to quit. Drugs and alcohol change the brain in ways that makes quitting hard. Those seeking counseling for addiction can find support at websites like thrivefamilycounseling.com/locations/sugar-land. Those who work in the aviation industry and battling addiction may seek a suitable Pilot substance abuse treatment.

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“Treatment depends to a large extent on the severity of addiction and the individual person,” Koob added. “Some people can stop cigarette smoking and alcohol use disorders on their own. More severe cases might require months or even years of treatment and follow-up, with real efforts by the individual and usually complete abstinence from the substance afterward.”