The Science Behind Addiction

May 18, 2019

When it comes to mental illness, the negative stigma surrounding the topic often undermines the severity of the illness itself. Those suffering are made to feel overlooked, ridiculed, and even embarrassed to speak out about their struggles.


Photo: on Unsplash 


Addiction is amongst the many mental disorders often brushed off as bad decision making, rather than a serious, chronic illness.


In technical terms, addiction can be defined as a disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Addiction essentially remolds these neural circuits.


In past years, the scientific understanding of addiction was based upon the concept of physical dependence. For those abusing substances like alcohol, nicotine, or heroin, their bodies build a tolerance to the drug that requires them to increase intake in order to achieve the same result. This is accompanied by a series of withdrawal symptoms that occur if one stops using the substance.


However, this definition does not account for addiction to substances that don’t require an increase in intake or cause withdrawal symptoms. Therefore, the definition of addiction has changed. Scientists now have an understanding that takes into consideration the mental causes of the disorder itself.


Substance abuse changes the way the brain functions on a physiological level. When one takes a drug, their reward system is triggered and excess dopamine is released. It is this dopamine increase that leads to the body’s reliance on the substance itself. Eventually, dopamine production levels begin to decrease. Users require the drug constantly in order to feel normal both physiologically and psychologically.


Despite there being evidence to support addiction as a mental illness, negative beliefs held by society often brush off the science behind addiction in favor of a different, more blame-placing concept of the disorder.


Many may see avoidance, prejudice, and derogatory terms such as “junkie” or “crackhead” as small consequences of somebody’s poor decision making. However, these examples of negative stigma can be incredibly harmful to both individuals and the way we as a society see addiction as a treatable disorder rather than failure.


Since addiction is a chronic disorder, it can not be cured, but it can be treated. However, the unfortunate shame and stigma keeps many addicts from acknowledging their need for and seeking out treatment.


Without recognizing the science behind addiction, it will remain under diagnosed, under treated, and misunderstood. There is a reason only 1 in 10 Americans with addiction ever receive professional care.


While there have been numerous advancements in understanding addiction as a chronic disorder, the disorder remains highly stigmatized in society. Those suffering from addiction face obstacles related to housing, education, jobs, voting rights and insurance, even after they’ve established long-term recovery. These individuals face discrimination for an illness they have no control over.


By challenging this stigma, we can begin to push back against these stereotypes and preconceived notions of addiction. Addiction is not a choice, nor should it be shamed and silenced. Instead, we should be creating a safe environment for those with addiction to speak about their struggles and seek out the treatment they deserve to receive.


Caroline is an undergraduate student at Worcester State University. When she is not writing, she also runs a photography business specializing in portrait, wedding, and boudoir photography. She aims to use both writing and photography to empower women and encourage them to find their inner voice and confidence.


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