How Does the Process of Addiction Happen?
The process of addiction is a little like dandelions spreading in your lawn. Each time you use drugs like Oxy, it’s like a new dandelion pops up in your yard. One could be enough to take over your whole lawn, but it’s usually not a big deal as long as you get rid of it.
Each time you pop a pill, smoke something or what have you, it’s like another dandelion sprouts up, then another and another. Before long, it doesn’t matter if you start weeding your lawn because the seeds have taken off and the spreading is out of your
control. Addiction, like the spreading dandelions, takes over your life – whether you want it to or not. Now, if you imagine the symptoms of addiction that we can see, like hanging with a rough crowd, slipping grades, or generally blowing your life up, as being like the flower of the dandelion. These behaviors get our attention and are what we want to get rid of. The problem with addiction is that, like dandelions, you can’t cut off the flower and expect it to go away. You need weed killer that gets down to the root and destroys the
entire weed. That is exactly what counseling works to do. Treatment is like the weed killer, getting down to the root of the addiction and resolving or removing anything that fuels the addiction process.
What happens in the mind when you are addicted to something?
Regardless of what is being used (drugs, alcohol, pornography, work, etc.), addiction starts with the brain basically overdosing on dopamine – the neurotransmitter that is responsible for motivation, craving, telling you what is important, what is worth repeating and what is important for survival. The beginning of addiction is when that “thing” you just did or took causes a hyper-message of importance, connection, or desire to repeat it. If that hyper-message keeps getting repeated, the addiction eventually becomes seen as
more important than eating, drinking or sleeping. The addiction takes priority over survival itself, which is why addicts are so capable of using even if they know it will kill them. One of the reasons addiction gets out of control is because of a neurological process
called habituation – which is the brains natural response of shutting certain things down when there is too much of it, much like how we stop hearing white noise after a while because the brain “stops listening”. When too much dopamine is repeatedly introduced into the brain, it starts shutting down production of dopamine to try and balance out. Your brain says, “Oh! There is already plenty of this, so let me save my energy and not make as much.” This means that, when the drugs aren’t there, dopamine levels drop through the floor because the brain stopped making its own. This is when dependence sets in because the addict needs to use just to feel normal. Without the dopamine rush they get from their drug of choice, they feel depressed, angry, unmotivated, and empty.
What are the effects of opioids on the body?
All opioids are painkillers. The feeling of pain is caused by several different chemicals and compounds in the brain that attach to pain receptors, activating the receptor and thus causing a sensation of pain. An opiate blocks pain because its chemical structure is
very similar to what pain receptors in the brain expect, but it is different enough that it doesn’t actually activate the receptor site, so pain is not actually felt. It is a lot like a key they fits into a lock but can’t turn. As long as that key is in the lock, no other key can get
in there and unlock the sensation of pain. Opiates are also a “downer”, which means they lower or suppress the activity of the body and mind. This is why someone actively using heroin is called “faded”, because their body and mind are so suppressed that they seem to fade away. Overdosing on opiates can be lethal because the depressant effect becomes so strong that it actually shuts down organs like the heart.
If opiates are so dangerous, why do people use them in the first place?
The suppressant effect, combined with the absence of pain and a flood of dopamine in the brain, cause the strong euphoria that is extremely attractive to opiate users. Opiates cause a feeling of transcendence, like nothing in the world can hurt them, like
everything is calm and perfect. Sounds kind of nice doesn’t it? The problem is that this feeling is fake. The user learns to reach out for opiates in response to any life problems instead of learning healthy coping skills that only come from overcoming challenges.
Scott Nuismer, LPC, CAADC is a licensed professional counselor and a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor at the Pine Rest Holland Clinic and Zeeland Clinic. He received his Master’s degree from Colorado Christian University and has worked in
the behavioral health field since 2008.