Due to the perception that many addictions result in self-gratifying behavior (i.e. chasing a high, being sexually fulfilled, letting go of stress, partying with abandon, etc.), many people believe that addiction is a choice. It can be quite hurtful to the person struggling with addiction and their loved ones when someone admonishes them for selfishly seeking their own pleasure at the expense of everyone else. This idea is very misguided and misinformed, so this article is meant to clear up any confusion about the causes of addiction, demonstrate how the disease affects the brain, and provide actionable steps to those struggling with addiction.
The Role of Genetics
It is believed that up to 50% of the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction is based on their genetics. Many research studies have confirmed the role of genetics, but the relationship between genes and predisposition to addiction is very complex. There is no fail-proof formula of which combination of genes will lead to a person struggling with an addiction, but it has been proven that a combination of genetics and environmental factors make up a significant portion of an individual’s proclivity towards addiction. If you were to look at a family tree, you could see a consistent pattern of the family members affected by an addictive disorder, whereas other family trees may be much less impacted.
Changes in the Brain
At this point, it may be helpful for you to understand the release of hormones and chemicals in the brain. Even as young children, we all experience releases of serotonin and dopamine when our basic needs of food, shelter, and interaction are met. These are natural “highs”. As we go through life and discover things like sugar, our natural “highs” become higher as a result of eating that sugar, and the feeling that we used to feel when we ate an apple doesn’t feel as good as it used to in comparison to eating sugar.
The same comparison can be made with emotional highs. The natural high of receiving a hug from a loved one used to be fulfilling enough that you didn’t look for anything further. Once your brain has experienced the high associated with the use of a certain substance, the benchmark for a fulfilling “high” has suddenly been pushed through the roof and in order to avoid feeling anxious or depressed, you have to turn to that thing that makes you feel good. Years ago, that might have been the comfort of a friend or family member, but the chemicals in your brain have adjusted to your unnatural high and won’t accept anything less.
While the initial experiences with a substance could be considered acts of the individual’s will, the subsequent emotional and behavioral changes that start the addictive disorder in the brain are completely independent of the person’s real desires. If two people tried a substance for the first time, one may decide to never consume it again while the other experiences a strong urge to use it again as soon as possible. This strong urge will increase in intensity over time and as the person’s use of the substance continues. The two could be experiencing the same level of dopamine and serotonin, but the first is eating an ice cream cone and the second is binge drinking.
Necessity of Treatment
As you can imagine, this chemical imbalance in the brain cannot be ignored because addictive behaviors continue to become more and more intense and potentially harmful the longer they go untreated. Like any other disease, addiction will not just go away without the right treatments. If you have a bacterial infection, the only way for it to go away is to take antibiotics – this is a medical certainty. The same could be said about the disease of addiction.
While some people in the early stages of an addictive disorder have been able to recover on their own or with the help of a 12-step group, this is not always the case. If you or someone close to you is struggling with an addiction, know that you are not alone in your struggle and you will not be alone in your recovery.
Reach out to an addiction treatment center or therapist in your area who can help walk you through the steps of recovery and get you back to living the life you want to live. If you live in the Long Beach, California, area, we would love to help you or your loved one walk this road. We are experienced in Sex addiction therapy and are truly committed to your recovery process.
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