Understanding Addiction

Addiction is an illness of the brain and is understood as drug-seeking behaviour. This behaviour is compulsive, in the sense that a person feels consistent urge to take the drugs. Gradually this drug taking turns into a consistent problem and the individual cannot come out of this on his own. Addiction of any substance is possible for example, alcohol, afeem, cannabis, heroin and sometimes medically prescribed drugs as well. Also, it’s important to point out that long term use of drugs can bring about chemical changes in the brain and makes consuming drugs more than just a bad habit. Hence it is seen as a serious mental health condition that requires treatment.

Addiction as an illness

So, most drugs affect the brain’s “reward circuit”, causing euphoria as well as flooding it with the chemical named dopamine. In simple words, this functioning of the reward system motivates a person to repeat the behaviour again and again. When a person continues taking drugs, the brain’s ability reduces to respond to these reward centres and person takes more drugs for producing the same effect. We call it increased tolerance. This tendency leads the person to become less able to derive the pleasure from other things such as love, sex and other important aspects of life.

One very important thing is that long term use can cause the deficit in a very important area of the brain called ‘prefrontal cortex’ which is responsible for learning, judgment, decision-making, stress, memory and behavior and hence causes disturbances in these functions.

Drinking occasionally doesn’t qualify as addiction. This statement is not to promote occasional use instead clarify that addiction is much more than just occasional consumption of substance.

Addiction and its symptoms

It is an illness. What makes it a illness is a very obvious change in persons’ behavior, mood, physical and social functioning.  In case of dependence/addiction, we can see that an individual exhibits symptoms like persistent craving or urge for the drugs, not being able to control when to start and stop and how much to use, (sometimes a person can start taking substance early in the morning or at any point of the day), his quantity increases day by day and he can consume the substance which has the capacity to cause death in some cases. A person experience restlessness in the absence of substance and his body and brain demands for it. The substance use continues despite knowing the consequences. There is also neglect of all those activities and relationships which once had greater value for the person.

Addiction and Willpower

Many patients and families talk about willpower being the ultimate solution to quit drugs. It is because people don’t understand why or how addiction occurs. Generally people think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to do so. However, in reality drug addiction is a complex problem and working on it usually takes more than good intentions and strong will. Drug use bring changes in the brain areas that are responsible for will power or decision-making and makes it harder for the person to act upon his will. So a person may have the best of intentions to say no to drugs, but has lost the capacity to act upon it.