Health Encyclopedia

Understanding the Power of Addiction

If a loved one suffers from alcoholism or addiction, you may wonder why the person can't or won't stop using a substance that has such negative and dangerous consequences.

Chances are the ability to stop abusing the substance is no longer within his or her control.

People who develop drug addictions or alcoholism almost always begin with occasional use or experimentation.

With continued use, brain structure and function are altered, and they depend on the drug not simply to feel good, but to feel normal. For these individuals, using drugs or alcohol is no longer a choice.

When addicted, the drug user will do just about anything to obtain the drug. The drug becomes the most important part of the person's life, overshadowing any other aspect.

Not inevitable

Even so, addiction isn't inevitable for everyone. Drugs differ in their addictive qualities, and people differ in their sensitivity to drugs. Just under one-third of people who try heroin become addicted to it, as will just over one-third of people who try tobacco and 12 to 15 percent of those who drink alcohol.        

Genetics and environment are important. Children with an alcoholic parent or anyone with a history of sexual or physical abuse or who grows up in an household, school, or community environment where substance abuse is the norm is more likely to develop addiction than someone without these risks.

Research over the last decade reveals that addictive drugs and alcohol alter the function of the brain and the way cells work. As a result, normal thought processes, memory, and emotions are fundamentally affected and changed permanently.

The person with addiction appears to risk his or her own survival to use the drug. Because the emotional and physical "need" to drink or use drugs becomes stronger than any natural drives, like that for food or sex, the overpowering drive to drink or use drugs becomes an involuntary one.

Desire always there

When the brain has experienced these changes, the desires created will always be there.

The changes in brain structure, function, and memory that develop in addition are long-lasting, and some may be permanent. There is always potential to rekindle addictive behaviors if a person drinks or uses drugs again. That's why addiction is considered a chronic illness that has to be managed for the remainder of a person's life.

Recovery is a lifelong process to avoid triggers, significant stress, and any use of addictive substances.