This is a question that has plagued mankind for centuries. For most of history, people have assumed that people who have a substance abuse addiction are just weak and they need to get tough with themselves.
People who have never suffered with an addiction may think that people who are addicted are just lazy – that they are just out for their own pleasure at the expense of everyone around them. They may even think that addicted people are immoral.
But looking at the ways that we now can treat substance abuse addictions shows us the answer to the age-old question: Is addiction a disease?
Scientists have discovered many helpful facts about the brain that make us realize that addiction is indeed a disease. There is a part of the human brain that deals with executive function. It is the part that can delay rewards and most importantly can tell a person which is more important in any situation.
Any given circumstance comes down to a decision where a person acts on their desires or chooses to do what needs to be done. It’s like the decision between going out and having a beer versus staying at the office to get the work done. The addicted brain automatically chooses pleasure over duty.
Just like all the other parts of the human brain, this part of the brain that deals with decisions uses brain chemicals called neurotransmitters to make these decisions.
Scientists and doctors have discovered that certain medications can help people give up their addictions. They have discovered that replacing the missing chemicals in a person’s brain helps them heal the executive function part of the brain so that they can make decisions based on intellect rather than just desire.
Another clue that tells us addiction is a brain misfunction is this: counselors and doctors at rehab centers have found that people with addictions benefit when they are taught new and different ways to find joy in their lives. Not only does the biology of brain chemicals make a difference in substance addictions, but also learned behavior can affect the way the brain works.
This brain theory is called neuroplasticity. In this instance, scientists believe that the brain pathways are essentially moldable (or plastic) and can be taught different ways to think about circumstances.
This idea says people with addictions may have previously been taught by their life experiences, or by their families and friends, that the only way they could feel happy was to get drunk. Or they may have observed that friends who abused drugs looked like they were really enjoying it. They tried it themselves and it worked for them too. In this way, they learned that pleasurable feelings came from addictive behaviors.
Teaching people with addictions that there are other ways to experience joy can sometimes “rewire” their brain to choose a healthy activity like watching a sunrise, or playing a musical instrument, or exercising to bring pleasure into their lives rather than pursuing their addiction.