Understanding the Disease of Addiction

What is addiction?

Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. It affects how your brain learns and functions.

Your genes and your environment can affect your risk for addiction. A family history of addiction also raises your risk, but anyone can have an addiction.

Unfortunately, many people falsely believe that addiction is a moral weakness. They think that people addicted to drugs or alcohol are simply behaving badly or making poor choices.

How does addiction affect my brain?

Whether you start using drugs or alcohol is your choice. But once your brain is exposed to the addictive substance, your brain begins to change. This is especially true if you are vulnerable to addiction. These brain changes override self-control. This happens because the substance overexcites the reward center in the brain. The substance mimics the brain's own natural feel-good chemicals. The brain is rewired into believing that the substance is a good thing and that you need it to survive. So strong is this rewiring that over time, you no longer find pleasure in other things. The addiction trumps all other motivations.

If you continue to use the substance, your brain makes less and less of its own feel-good chemicals. You then must keep using drugs or alcohol to try to make up for the low levels of the brain chemicals. Your brain eventually needs more and more of the drug to achieve this. You need the drug without regard to the physical, emotional, and social costs.

Can you become addicted to things other than drugs or alcohol?

Addiction can develop in response to other pleasurable activities that stimulate the reward center of the brain. These activities include eating, having sex, gambling, using tobacco, and even using the internet.

Can you get control over a brain disease?

The only way to get over an addiction is to stop using the substance. By not using it, your brain can recover and return to its normal functioning. You can relearn how to find pleasure in other things. But, your brain will always be at risk for addiction. Because addiction is so powerful, you usually will need medical help and social support for long-term success.

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