Although almost everyone is familiar with the dangers and consequences of substance abuse, very few are aware of how addiction starts. Humans can experience addiction to many substances and activities, from hard drugs and alcohol to high-stakes gambling and luxury shopping, but many researchers are beginning to believe that all are manifestations of the same mental processes. According to current statistics, over 23 million Americans—nearly one in ten—is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Read on to learn more about how addiction starts, and how you can help loved ones struggling with addiction.
The Pleasure Principle
The first step to understanding how addiction starts is to identify what is so attractive about substances like alcohol and drugs. As a result of decades of research, we now understand that the brain processes all pleasurable sensations—whether the high that comes from drugs or the satisfaction you feel after a good meal—in the same way. After an enjoyable experience, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released from the brain’s nucleus accumbens, which scientists have nicknamed “the pleasure center.”
Although all pleasure sensations pass through the nucleus accumbens, not all pleasures are created equal. Drugs like heroin and cocaine, for instance, produce a much larger surge of dopamine than other addictive substances, such as nicotine. In fact, research shows that addictive drugs release between 2-10 times the amount of dopamine as a “natural” reward like exercise or sexual activity. This effectively overloads the brain.
Since drugs and alcohol flood the brain with these feel-good chemicals, they create a “shortcut” that directly links consumption of the substance with pleasure. Effectively, addictive substances can hijack our brains’ very effective reward learning systems, causing us to pursue even more damaging behaviors and habits. At this point, any attempts to stop using the drug can lead to frightening withdrawal symptoms.
How Tolerance Develops
However, the drugs and alcohol will not continue to have the same pleasurable effect for very long. The brain is unable to handle this level of stimulation for very long. Have you ever kept turning up the music in your car as your ears became accustomed to the new volume, unaware of how loud it has become until you turn it back on? That is exactly how the human brain responds to excessive amounts of dopamine production.
Once a person has become addicted, their brain often “turns down the volume” by getting rid of dopamine receptors or producing less of the chemical. This process is the development of tolerance, and is the brain’s natural and healthy response to overstimulation. Unfortunately, it now takes even more of the substance to achieve the same level of pleasure or excitement. A person with an alcohol addiction often realizes that, in order to get drunk, they need to drink double or triple the amount that they needed when they first started drinking.
Now that you know how addiction starts, you may be wondering how to help a friend or family member who is already struggling with one of these dangerous dependencies. These stories will only become more common now that the opioid crisis is a national emergency. Don’t feel like you need to address this problem on your own. There are resources and professionals available to offer guidance, support, and healing. If you are coping with the effects of a drug or alcohol addiction, please contact the staff of CARUS Recovery at 877-225-7724 for more information.