Wondering Why Are Drugs and Alcohol So Damned Addictive? Here’s the Truth

“We’re all an addict of some kind or other,” so says Anne Wilson Schaef, renowned author and self-described recovering psychotherapist. She makes the argument that whether yours is a chemical addiction or a process addiction like shopping, workaholism, or internet porn the compulsion can be just as soul-sucking and life-crushing as alcoholism or drug abuse.

Yes, she said that.

I’m skeptical. While I’m no recovering psychotherapist, I just don’t see how working late at the office or maxing out your credit cards from overconsuming can have the equivalent effect on your organs and gray matter as booze and heroin. Still, point taken: we humans are animals of addiction. We too often focus our obsessions on something or other to get us through. If chemicals are your addiction of choice then I think we can all agree that the ravages of their abuse will extend far beyond the soul.

What Is a Chemical Addiction?

The thing about chemical addictions is that it’s a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite the harmful consequences to the drug addict and those around them.

So then, what do drugs do to the brain that makes the addiction so disease-like? The first time a drug is abused the user feels an unnaturally intense feeling of pleasure. The brain’s reward circuitry – part of the limbic system – is overstimulated with dopamine carrying the message.

The irony is all of this activity takes place in a part of the brain about the size of a chickpea called the nucleus accumbens. It is this region that gets inundated with dopamine when you abuse a drug, eat a doughnut, have sex or something else that the brain associates with survival or breeding. The problem with drugs is that the dopamine surge is faster and long-lasting.

The Dope on Dopamine

The result of this unnatural flood of neurotransmitters is that the neurons may begin to reduce the number of dopamine receptors or simply make less dopamine. This causes less dopamine signaling in the brain, or downregulation, and reduces the sensitivity in the brain cells to the drug which in turn creates tolerance. Some drugs are toxic and may cause neurons to die. Drug addicts will seek larger and larger hits – increasing the amount of toxic substance – to achieve an ever-diminishing pleasure experience. At this stage they will have trouble feeling satisfaction from the things that healthy people enjoy.

This is turn causes the dopamine that activates the circuits of pleasure to be severely weakened. With continued drug abuse, the overstimulation of these circuits changes the brain, leading to the intense craving and uncontrollable pursuit of drugs that are the character of addiction.

Then There’s Behavioral Conditioning

Another reason that drugs, especially a drug like heroin, are so addictive is the added dimension of behavioral conditioning. Once the brain becomes used to the idea of a pleasurable act, like eating a doughnut or having sex, just seeing a doughnut or an attractive potential mate triggers the dopamine cascade in the tiny nucleus accumbens. This is part of the reason that recovering drug addicts find it so difficult to stay clean over the long term. Sights and sounds and smells associated with the drug high – needles, for example, or the friends with whom they used to get high, prime this dopamine response. The motivation to seek the big reward for the drug hit builds. The longer one has been addicted the more pronounced the reaction.

The end effect is that the brain is physiologically changed – and in the case of some drugs like crystal meth, permanently damaged. Hence the reason substance abuse is designated a disease and not a social problem: substances can change the structure and function of the brain. Ending substance abuse is not just a matter of willpower, very often it requires long-term support.

Even though it is a disease, it is one that can be successfully treated. It many cases the damage can be undone.

If you or a loved one have an addiction to alcohol, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery within 30 days. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.

Why Are Drugs and Alcohol So Damned Addictive?