Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
What is an Addict?
The Latin origin of the word addict is chillingly appropriate – “to sell out, betray, become enslaved by.” Addiction profoundly rewires the brain, allowing the addictive substance to exert such a powerful hold that an addict will continue addictive behavior regardless of the consequences. Loved ones and others who see an addict’s life becoming ruined often find it impossible to understand why the addict doesn’t just stop using.
Individuals don’t start out using an addictive substance with addiction as a goal. Usually, they are seeking to dull physical or emotional pain or to deal with feelings or behaviors they deem as negative. But when addiction sets in, compulsions and cravings make it increasingly difficult to stop.
How Addiction Affects Rational Thinking
When addictive drugs enter the brain, dopamine levels are increased at much higher levels than would happen naturally. Dopamine affects the pleasure and reward center of the brain triggering bliss, motivation, concentration, and more. As drug use continues, the brain becomes unable to activate the reward system naturally so pleasure can only be felt when addictive drugs trigger the good feelings the addict craves. As time passes, the brain adapts to elevated dopamine levels and a higher dose of drugs is required to feel good. When the drug wears off and dopamine levels drop, withdrawal symptoms and powerful cravings result. The cycle continues as the addict will do whatever it takes to once again feel good and “normal”.
Not only do addictive drugs damage the reward center of the brain, but they also affect the frontal lobes. This part of the brain controls morality and judgment. Damage to the frontal lobes may result in an addict who behaves immaturely and who is unable to make rational decisions or choices. They may become paranoid, sure that others are out to get them. Completely self-centered, addicts care only how they feel in the present moment. They are incapable of recognizing or caring how their current actions translate into future consequences.
Loved ones find it difficult to understand why an addict can’t make a conscious, rational decision to stop behavior that is destroying not only them but others. The truth is that damage to the brain makes it nearly impossible for the addict to use good judgment, think rationally, or have the ability to stop using drugs on their own volition.
Much of the brain damage caused by drug abuse can be reversed. A comprehensive addiction treatment program has been shown to be the most effective choice for long-term recovery.