Why is it that addiction affects some individuals and not others? Is it because of personal weakness or lack of will? No, it is not. Addiction is a complex condition that can affect people of all sizes and ages. It is pervasive and can destroy a person’s life. The misconception that addiction is a choice made by irresponsible pleasure-seeking individuals is falling by the wayside. Thanks to the development of new research and technology, clinicians and scientists have a deeper understanding of the building blocks that truly lead to addiction.
What is Addiction?
Addiction is a chronic condition where the body compulsively craves a substance or behavior. This brain disease can manifest through neurotic drug use or irregular conduct. Once the body is repeatedly exposed to a drug, the function of specific brain circuits change. These alterations create a dysfunction that directly responds to the body’s obsessive pursuit for a “reward.”
The bodies repeated exposure to a drug warp its:
- Reward system
- Learning capabilities
- Management of stress
- Decision-making abilities
Despite harmful consequences, people with an addiction intensely focus on their need for another “hit.” They continuously participate in activities that help them attain their desired “prize” without concern for themselves or others.
The Building Blocks of Addiction
The roots of addiction are complicated since each human is as unique as the next. One way of picturing this concept is by imagining individuals as houses. Each house has different building blocks, yet all of its pieces come together to make it whole. Similarly, humans are also made up of various “building blocks.” Our disposition to addiction is based on these different elements. It can determine whether we develop an addiction disorder.
The building blocks of addiction are broken up into four sections:
- A combination of genetics and environment.
- Neurobiological changes that reinforce the addiction cycle.
- Positive and negative reinforcement.
- Potential risk factors.
Genetics and Environment
Genetic factors make up for 40 to 60% of whether an individual will develop an addiction. People born into families with a history of substance use disorders are very vulnerable to addiction. Addiction is hereditary. Like cancer, a family member can pass the chronic illness from one generation to the next.
Though a person’s genetics are strong influencers, they are not the only influential factors. More building blocks, such as the environment in which a person grows up plays a significant role in an individual’s vulnerability.
Environmental factors that increase the chances of addiction include:
- Toxic families
- Easy access to drugs
- Influence from peers
- Behavioral or impulse control problems
Research shows that children who grow up in toxic households are more likely to turn to substance abuse for relief later on in adulthood. A pathological family profoundly influences a child’s behavior and development, which later affects the life of the adult. Together genetics and environmental factors play a significant role in predisposing individuals to addiction.
One of the most critical neurobiological changes within a substance user’s brain happens within the basal ganglia. During the early stages of addiction, circuits inside the basal ganglia reduce their sensitivity to dopamine. The reduction of sensitivity lowers an individual’s ability to feel “high” or the drug’s effects. This new tolerance is the brain’s way of maintaining balance and co-existing with the substance. The brain’s adjustments lower a user’s ability to feel the euphoric effects. Unfortunately, this lack of a pleasurable surge usually leads individuals to take a higher dosage, reinforcing addiction.
In contrast, the extended amygdala reinforces addiction through stress. Neurotransmitters cause a painful sensation within the body, also known as withdrawals. In response to this pain, the prefrontal cortex compels the body to action to find a solution. This leads to a more profound addiction and the start of a vicious cycle of pain and temporary relief. Over time, withdrawal symptoms become difficult to bear.
Positive and Negative Reinforcement
Addictions can be affected by both positive and negative reinforcements. In positive reinforcement, there is an introduction of a desirable stimulus. The introduction of this reward raises the chances of behavior repetition. For example, when a person takes an opioid, a “prize” is a surge of dopamine. In negative reinforcement, there is a painful stimulus’s removal as a direct response to a person’s behavior. This removal of negative consequences reinforces the specific action. For example, during drug withdrawal, the reintroduction of a substance to the body subsides withdrawal symptoms. Both positive and negative reinforcement through drug-related stimuli can lead to a deeper addiction or even a relapse.
Potential Risk Factors
Potential risk factors increase a person’s chances of developing a substance use disorder. They can occur at any age and vary from person to person. Through prevention intervention, individuals can avoid potential risk factors. However, when not addressed, negative behaviors can lead to a higher risk of drug abuse.
Potential risk factors include but are not limited to:
- Age of onset
- Time of use
- Frequency of use
- Academic failure
- Mental health issues
- Marital instability
- Employment status
The more risk factors a person is exposed to, the more likely they are to develop an addiction. Whether the onset occurs at an early age or later in life, it impacts an individual’s vulnerability.
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Construction Of The Addiction Process, The Building Blocks
The interaction between the different building blocks of addiction is a strong indicator of whether an individual will develop the disorder. Each factor is significant and can be more potent during different life stages. Exposure to the various building blocks of life predispose individuals to this deadly disease. By understanding the process, not only can we take preventative measures, but we can also help change the surrounding stigma.