Addiction is a complex illness characterized by compulsive overuse of addictive substances even when the effects are clearly negative. While the first decision to use an addictive substance is usually a free choice, repeated use causes actual brain changes that make quitting difficult. For some people and some substances, this can happen after even a single use. Other people seem somewhat immune to the brain changing effects, or at least they experience them in a more temporary or less intense way.
Why do some people get addicted and others do not? Certainly the reason has nothing to do with moral character or willpower, as a misinformed public sometimes believes, even today. No single factor is responsible. Rather, a combination of three factors makes addicts out of some but not others. These factors are biology, environment, and development. If all three factors are present, the likelihood of addiction is high. Addiction is an illness, not a mark of shame.
The Biology of Addiction
Some people are genetically programmed to respond quickly to addictive substances. They easily become addicts. If these same people are lucky enough to have calm lives with lots of family and community support, they may never become addicts, even with their genetic predisposition. But if such people experience stressors such as child abuse, mental illness, or other trauma in addition to their predisposition, or if life is consistently short on basic needs and opportunities, the addictive tendencies are activated and full-blown addiction develops.
Addiction is a chronic brain disease. It has nothing to do with moral character or self-control. A normal person’s brain releases a chemical called dopamine in response to normal pleasurable activities like being with family, doing rewarding work, or spending time outside. Dopamine is one of the naturally occurring brain chemicals responsible for feelings of happiness and security. Everyone needs it, and short of a disease process, everyone gets it.
By contrast, when a person with a genetic predisposition to addiction uses an addictive substance under stressful circumstances, the brain adjusts to the addictive substance so that the next time dopamine is needed, the brain makes less of it, causing the person to crave the substance instead. The more the substance is abused, the less dopamine is produced in the brain, until finally an enormous amount of the addictive substance is needed just to bring the person up to feeling normal. Pleasure and feelings of well-being become almost impossible to catch.
Once a person with a biologic predisposition to addiction gets on this diminishing dopamine merry-go-round, quitting becomes nearly impossible without help. The addiction takes on a life of its own, getting progressively worse each time the addict uses. This is why it is often said that addiction is a progressive disease. While addiction can be halted with professional treatment and lifelong support, it never really goes away. Permanent changes in the brain’s dopamine production remain, always ready to pick up where the disease left off should the person ever use again.
The Impact of Environment and Development on Who Becomes Addicted and Who Doesn’t
In a now famous experiment, scientists compared two groups of rats. Both groups had ready access to an addictive substance by pressing a bar in their cage. One group of rats was given an interesting, lively environment with plenty of food, places to explore, toys for learning and play, and clean rat-friendly living quarters. The other group of rats was placed in a barren cage and underfed on boring pellets.
The group of rats with the enriched, interesting environment did not respond to the addictive substance at all. The rats in the barren enclosure became almost unanimously addicted. The experiment shows that an enriched environment and healthy development are not luxuries but rather are necessary to good mental health. People are not rats, of course, but the point is clear: People with rich, interesting lives who have no developmental traumas are fairly resistant to addiction no matter what their genetic make-up or cultural heritage.
On the other hand, people who have lived with abuse, scarcity, violence, and trauma have a very hard time experiencing normal development and are very susceptible to addiction. That is why learning how to build personal support systems and treating underlying issues with trauma and mental health are so important to successful recovery from addiction. Simply avoiding the addictive substance through sheer force of will does not work.
Instead, a healthy environment has to be substituted for the negative one, the kind of environment provided by a top-notch rehab center. If you have been suffering on the merry-go-round of addiction, we can help. Stop beating yourself up and call 844-639-8371 . Counselors are available 24/7, seven days a week.