Shedding Light on Why Addiction is a Brain Disorder
There is a long-standing argument about addictive behavior, and whether addiction is a brain disorder or a behavioral-related issue. According to a new study by The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is now officially described as a chronic brain disorder.
Long-Standing Beliefs About Addiction Are About To Change
For years, people believed addiction was a problem stemming from behavioral issues or a lack of a moral compass. For this reason, a stigma has been built around addiction, with many people maintaining the false assumption that addicts are bad people and that their addiction is simply bad decision making.
The fact is that addiction can affect anyone. The current opioid epidemic in America is evidence enough that addiction reaches far and wide. It has no discrimination when it comes to race, wealth, gender, or education. There are well-to-do families in quiet suburban communities watching their family members succumb to opiate overdose, while the same is happening in urban communities and rural communities. The epidemic is sparing no population.
This stigma is exactly what prevents people from asking for the help they need. Families feel embarrassed and don’t want their communities to know that their son or daughter is an addict. Addicts are afraid to tell their families they have addiction problems because they worry about isolation. Less than half of the people who have an addiction to drugs or alcohol actually get the help they need. The new finding that addiction is a brain disorder might help to change those numbers and make people feel more comfortable about getting the help they need.
Addiction is a Brain Disorder. Here’s Why.
After a four-year study by ASAM, addiction was defined as a chronic brain disorder that does not simply rely on the person’s substance or action of choice. Dr. Michael Miller, the past president of ASAM who oversaw the study, says, “At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain issue, driven by substance abuse, with associated behaviors that result in serious, real-world problems. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”
People perceive addiction as a secondary disease to other mental and mood disorders like anxiety and depression. This study provides alternative claims, showing addiction is, in fact, a primary disease. As a result of this research, those struggling with addiction should receive treatment for the primary condition it is. The study also draws correlations to other diseases like diabetes and cancer. Individuals need treatment and monitoring for related conditions. Just like these diseases, addiction isn’t something that just goes away on its own.
The Science Behind Addiction in the Brain
The brain is an incredibly powerful organ, and addiction is a testament to that. When a person experiences addiction, their brain’s reward system learns to rely on their substance of choice, meaning that a person will react to it and attempt to fulfill that feeling with drugs or alcohol. This feeling is something that is so strong that people will stop at nothing to get their next fix. To them, it is a sincere matter of survival. Other responsibilities and issues become secondary.
This supports the fact that addicts do not have control of their behavior after a certain point. Dr. Raju Hajela, former president of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine and chair of the ASAM committee states “The disease creates distortions in thinking, feelings and perceptions, which drive people to behave in ways that are not understandable to others around them.” Hajela said in a statement, “Simply put, addiction is not a choice. Addictive behaviors are a manifestation of the disease, not a cause.”
What Does This Mean For Recovery?
When it comes to recovery, there is no magic pill for addiction treatment. In sustained sobriety, it is up to the individual to make healthy life decisions in order to keep their addiction in remission. Just as a person with heart disease should live a healthy lifestyle, so should that of a recovering addict. And, just like a person with heart disease should take medication for high blood pressure, an addict should manage conditions like anxiety or depression.
These findings also mean that the stigma around addiction needs to be tossed aside. Addicts aren’t bad people who don’t care and just make bad decisions because it is the easy way out. They are people who are suffering from brain disorders that affect their day to day thinking and behavior. Shunning them will only further the stigma and cause fewer people to come forward.
This also means that people in addiction recovery shouldn’t give up. An individual can manage heart disease to ensure a long happy, healthy and fulfilling life; the same is true of addiction. It is not a death sentence, nor a pretend ailment, nor is it easy to dismiss with a few counseling sessions. Addiction is a brain disorder and requires treatment as such for successful results.