A man's brain struggling with the difficulties associated with addiction

Artwork by Chirag Shetty

A man's brain struggling with the difficulties associated with addiction

Why are drugs addictive?

Medically reviewed by

Written by Ankul Dev

Our brains are complex, remarkable organs; a miracle that nourishes itself on the beauty and wonder of the world it floats through. 

Imagine a pantry stocked with clean, white dishes; rows of unembellished discs sitting on thin wooden planks. Now pick the cupboard up, over your head, and hurl it at the Moon. Could you hear the applause of broken china?

Without a doubt, our brains make us superhuman. But it comes with a weakness. A biological flaw; it can lie to itself. We can make good things bad, and bad things great. We can rationalise our mistakes, and justify our regrets. We can get addicted to things that harm us. 

There’s a prevalent notion among many of us that people who get addicted to substances simply lack the willpower to stop, that they’re missing certain moral principles or that they can end their drug use by waking up one morning and just choosing to; when the reality is, it’s not a choice. 

Of course, the first time someone tries an addictive substance, it’s a choice. This voluntary act comes from a place of curiosity, a desire to try something new; a  “one-time” experiment that later becomes recreational use and soon enough a dependency, an uncontrollable necessity. 

Clinically, drug abuse or addiction is known as substance use disorder. Though modern science has brought the disease to a manageable state, quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Because that’s how we’re built. 

Our brains are wired weird.

What you need to understand about our biological machinery is this: neurotransmitters carry messages between brain cells. These messages are transmitted rapidly, ceaselessly, and innumerable times between neurons in the brain. This neurochemical communication is what controls our moods, behaviours, movements, and cognition.

Scientists call this structure our “reward system.” It’s vital to our survival. Engaging in any behaviour that helps us survive or stay healthy gets written into our subconscious through feelings of pleasure. Every dog you’ve pet, every meal you’ve enjoyed, every hug you’ve given was rewarded with a boost of dopamine, a neurotransmitter; and every time we engage in such new or rewarding behaviours, the brain builds connections between that behaviour and related “cues,” like sights, sounds, or feelings to remind us of that reward. 

Ever walk by a busy kitchen wafting delicious smells and catch yourself anticipating the meal? That’s dopamine knocking on your consciousness carrying buckets of joy.

In other words, this system motivates us to repeat behaviours that ensure survival. Drugs happen to be able to trigger the same impulse. They tap into the brain's "reward circuit,” flooding it with so much dopamine that we mistake the euphoria for real pleasure. 

Wait, so drugs hack our brains?

The “high” that people feel on drugs is just the rousing sensation of the chemical messenger dopamine ratting their mind. The insidious aspect of drugs though is that the huge spike it causes is far more addictive than the normal amounts triggered by regular activities. 

They corrupt the biochemical process to internalise the message: drugs are good, drugs are just as important as food, sex or social interactions. 

On top of that, drugs interrupt the normal re-uptake of these brain chemicals, throwing off the entire process and your natural balance, altering your mood. Soon, all that matters is to produce that flood of neurotransmitters again: this is when addiction begins. 

As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adapts by reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. If someone sitting next to you suddenly starts juggling monkeys, at some point you’ll stop being amused; the stimulus is just not exciting anymore. Same thing.  The brain reduces how rewarding the high feels. Especially when compared to the first time. This is known as developing tolerance, and people begin needing more of the drug in search of their first high; more monkeys in the air.

Over time, the person becomes less and less able to derive pleasure from other things they once enjoyed. The mechanisms in their mind responsible for tolerating stress and having self-control weaken. This is why people find it so difficult to control their drug use—even when it causes harm, when it doesn’t feel the way it used to, or when it gets in the way of other parts of their life.

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Why does it sound like anyone can get addicted?

Stepping off the curb into evening traffic might seem like a simple act evading shiny metal bonnets and getting home a little sooner, but each suave manoeuvre out of the reach of physical tragedy makes the safety of the sidewalk a comfort of the past. 

Your sense of control or disposition to engage in certain behaviours comes from three things:

  1. Capability: the psychological or physical ability that enables a person to pursue a behaviour or outcome.
  1. Motivation: the intense ‘why’ that compels people to want something, as well as the automatic and reflective mental processes that guide us to that goal.
  1. Opportunity: the physical and social factors in a person’s environment that either constrain or encourage a specific behaviour.

Our experts have a more nuanced understanding of these biological tenets because decades of research allow them to explain the next layer of addiction risk, that the real reason why people walk off that footpath can be broadly attributed to the following factors:

Genetics: According to the National Institutes of Health, Genetics determine about 50 percent of your drug and alcohol addiction risk. Your inherited traits not only determine how your body and brain react to a particular drug, it can also speed up or slow down the way the disease of addiction develops.

Environment: Environmental factors, such as your access to healthcare, exposure to a peer group that tolerates or encourages drug abuse, your educational opportunities, the presence of drugs in your home, your beliefs and attitudes, and your family’s use of drugs are factors in the first use of drugs for most people, and whether that use escalates into addiction.

Development: Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction risk. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to addiction.

Where things get complicated is addiction risk being influenced by a combination of all of these factors, as opposed to the presence or absence of any one pushing you into the habit. This means that it’s very difficult to predict if a person will become addicted to drugs, just that the more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.

How bad does it get?

Popular media has all but ensured that even if you’ve never seen the real thing yourself, you know the different ways people consume drugs, like injection, inhalation and ingestion. Not only do different drugs have different effects, but the method of intake can raise the chances of addiction. For example, the injection of drugs directly into the bloodstream has an immediate impact, while ingestion has a delayed effect. But all misused drugs affect the brain.

Addiction is like finding hope in the contortions of funhouse mirrors. Untreated, it becomes exceedingly difficult to live without a maze of confusion. And you keep going back regardless of the damage to your body, your brain, and your life.

The health consequences of long term drug use can continue even after a person has stopped taking the substance. 

Brain imaging studies from people with substance use disorders show changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgement, decision making, learning and memory, and behaviour control. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviours of addiction.

Remember: Dopamine is a naturally occurring neurochemical responsible for motivation and reward. It just also happens to be a crucial neurotransmitter related to addiction because drug abuse causes the release of surges of dopamine, and these in turn produce feelings of euphoria, followed by cravings, major reinforcement of the same behaviours, and compulsions to repeat whatever behaviour produced the surge.

Soon enough a promising student might see his grades slip. A bubbly social butterfly might suddenly have trouble getting out of bed. A trustworthy sibling might start stealing or lying. Behavioural changes like these are directly linked to a changing brain.

It may be tempting to believe that this only happens with “real” drugs like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine, but nicotine, alcohol, opioid medications, and marijuana are also equally addictive.

Whenever people picture a person battling addiction, the image is of someone desperate, itching for another hit. This itch is the cravings triggered by addiction, and they can be painful, constant, and distracting. What’s more, withdrawal from substances is a painful, whole-body experience. Once someone is addicted, responding to cravings and avoiding withdrawal become their most important needs.

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Is this why quitting is so difficult?

Once someone is addicted, they’re not using drugs to feel good — they’re using drugs to feel normal.

Every conversation around drug addiction maligns those suffering with it as morally weak people who made bad choices. This pure behavioural model ignores the biological changes that addiction triggers in the body and brain.

How do you escape your own mind?

That question becomes slightly more bleak when you consider the issue of comorbidity. Many people who are addicted to drugs suffer from mental health problems and use drugs to self-medicate. 

Assigning the fault of addiction to the individual’s lack of will or bad judgement is like pulling someone out of the rubble after an earthquake and screaming at them for ruining your weekend. Thankfully this misunderstanding of the real issue is waning in most progressive areas of society, but in the few places where it persists we would like to say this. 

Harsh consequences, shame, and punishment are simply not effective ways to heal a person’s addiction. A person can’t undo the effects drugs have had on their body chemistry through sheer willpower.

When someone tries to stop using drugs, the strong associations between drugs and related cues and new or ongoing experiences of stress may lead them to experience cravings and use drugs again. Returning to use after stopping, or relapse, is not uncommon. And like addiction itself, it’s not a sign of weakness.

While drugs can change the brain, treatments—and time—can change it too. But not without sustained support. The kindness and presence of family, friends and peers while they relieve withdrawal symptoms and navigate triggers will empower them to properly heal and make positive changes.

Medical intervention and personalised treatment methods are only truly effective alongside such crucial and empathetic support. Not just from the people close to these individuals but from within society. This is the bare minimum to people overcoming a sickness and living truly rewarding lives. 

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