Rehab 4 Addiction

This question is asked by a huge number of people all across the world. Addiction is a disease that can affect any of us at any point in life.

Whether it’s you experiencing addictive behaviours or a loved one who is suffering, addiction can be a difficult thing to understand.

To fully comprehend how addiction takes root, we need to consider a few points:

  • Why can’t people just stop?
  • What does addiction do to the brain?
  • What things can increase a vulnerability to addiction?

Once we understand these points, we are better equipped to tackle addiction and support the people in our lives who suffer from it.

Why can’t I/they just stop?”

Why can't they stop

When the repercussions of substance misuse start to mount up, it can seem unbelievable that drugs or alcohol (or whatever substance it may be) continue to come first in a person’s life.

Medical experts now consider addiction a disease which is based in one of the most primitive parts of the brain, the area responsible for reward

This is the part of the brain that tells us what behaviours should be repeated because they are beneficial.

Addictive substances overwhelm this system of reward to such an extent that the brain begins to think of the substance as more important than anything else. 

Addiction involves the brain telling a person that, despite all the repercussions and negative effects, it will be OK to have that next drink or drug.

This is why addiction sufferers can find it so hard to quit.

But this prompts another question: why can some people use substances or drink alcohol without any problems, but others become addicted? 

To answer this, we need to look at what happens in the brains of addiction sufferers, as well as at other social and psychological factors.

What does addiction do to the brain?  

Addiction and the brain

Again, it is important to remember that, whilst scientific research is offering some very strong theories about what things can heighten the possibilities of someone suffering from addiction, every single person is different.  It is still far from possible to say that anyone will or will not struggle with addictive behaviour in their life.

Certain substances can cause an increase in dopamine in the brain. These include:

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Opiates

Dopamine is the chemical that tells us to repeat a certain behaviour because it is rewarding.

Many normal, enjoyable activities lead to the production of dopamine, including:

  • Eating a good meal
  • Drinking water on a hot day
  • Exercise
  • Having sex 

It has been seen however that addictive substances lead to much higher levels of dopamine than these natural pleasures and it is this that provides the drive to take the substance again.

Not everyone begins to use the substance again and again, and this is where other factors come into play that can make someone vulnerable to becoming addicted.

What things can increase vulnerability to addiction?

Vulnerble to addiction

Links have been discovered between certain features that might be present in a person’s life and their likelihood of developing addictive behaviours.

These features might be part of a person’s psychological health, their experience of relationships, or things in their genetic makeup.

Again, having these things present does not mean someone will suffer from addiction; they have simply been seen to increase a person’s vulnerability to developing addictive tendencies.

Psychological health and addiction vulnerability

Mental Health

Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health issues that are found in people with substance use disorders (SUDs). 

Alcohol and many other drugs can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety but the brief sense of relief offered, together with the enormous release of dopamine, can be highly conducive to the development of substance misuse.

Studies have shown that another key factor that increases the chances of an individual developing addictive behaviour is stress.

Of course, everyone experiences stress and, in fact, some degree of stress can be good for us.

However, it has been repeatedly seen that high levels of stress, caused for example by major life changes or bereavements, can be significant factors in increasing someone’s vulnerability to addiction.

There is a great deal of evidence pointing to the significant role in addiction vulnerability played by early childhood trauma or family dysfunction.

Adverse childhood events (ACEs) are ranked among the principal elements found to be present in people who suffer from substance use disorders.

Examples of ACEs include:

  • Having an alcoholic or drug user in their childhood home
  • Experiencing their mother being mistreated
  • Being physically, sexually or emotionally abused

Relationship support and addiction vulnerability

Relationship Support

Of the many different ways of protecting against the development of addictive tendencies, strong social support is one of the most successful.

It appears that people with good, emotionally supportive relationships are far less likely to develop addictions than those who do not experience such help.

Social isolation in whatever form, such as a lack of community support, feeling like you don’t fit in, or being raised in an unsupportive family, are all elements frequently found amongst those struggling with addiction.

Is addiction hereditary?

Hereditary

Studies show that there is an increased vulnerability to addiction in those who come from a family in which other members have had similar difficulties.

Many people who have addictive behaviours are able to point to parents, grandparents or other relatives who have themselves struggled with addiction.

One question therefore arises: is addiction genetic? Do people born to families that have experienced addiction carry a particular gene that makes them more likely to have addictive tendencies?

Unfortunately, the answer is still unclear.

Whilst there has been no discovery of a particular gene responsible for addiction, an increased vulnerability has been noted in families in which addiction is already present.

It may be that some people have a certain mental disposition to the development of addiction, which may or may not be passed on.

 However, if this is the case, the other factors that we have looked at would all still be relevant in whether or not this person then goes on to develop actual addiction.

Is addiction genetic?

Is addiction genetic

One of the reasons scientists are uncertain about whether addiction is hereditary is that the correlation they have found with increased chances of addiction in families may be genetic.

However, this correlation may also be down to learnt behaviour.

Whilst it can sound ridiculous to say that children might learn to be addicts from their relatives, what children do learn, often unconsciously, is how to view and react to life.

The unhealthy ways that parents and family members might respond to life become part of the atmosphere from which a child learns how they will deal with life in the future.

The neurological (in the brain) disposition to develop addiction may be present in many more people than we imagine.

However, it may be that it is only when coupled with an unhealthy atmosphere that the trigger for activating an addictive disposition in the brain is tripped.

There is also increased (though very early) research into how the damage caused to a person by traumatic events can be passed on to children and grandparents biologically. 

Can I become an alcoholic by drinking too much?

Drinking too much

This question applies to any addictive substance or behaviour, but drinking alcohol is one of the most common.

The reality is that some people drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol, use too much cannabis, cocaine, pornography, or whatever it might be, and do not become addicted.

However, it is also true that some people who appear not to be addicted to these substances may find themselves unable to stop or even cut down.

When dopamine in the brain has been at increased levels for a significant period due to the use of an addictive substance, it begins to change the brain’s chemistry. This causes an addiction to develop.

However, as we have seen there are often other factors present in the lives of people who develop addictions.  

At the moment, medicine has no way of knowing why or when a particular person might begin struggling with addictive tendencies. 

We do have some understanding of what elements increase a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

Thanks to this, we can help people to heal and strengthen those areas in a significant way, giving them the best chance to avoid developing an addiction.

References:

1. Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction: 2016, https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMra1511480

2.Impacts of adverse childhood experiences: 2013, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2013.07.011

boris

Boris is our editor-in-chief at Rehab 4 Addiction. Boris is an addiction expert with more than 20 years in the field.  His expertise covers a broad of topics relating to addiction, rehab and recovery. Boris is an addiction therapist and assists in the alcohol detox and rehab process. Boris has been featured on a variety of websites, including the BBC, Verywell Mind and Healthline.