Beyond the Stigma: Understanding Addiction

In a time when addiction has become prevalent in our communities, it’s unfortunate that stereotypes and prejudices is also still common.

Many people think that addiction involves only those who are poor and uneducated. There’s also the stigma that addicts are criminal and even immoral. It’s not uncommon for people to judge addicts as if they have a choice in their condition, as if they have poor willpower or a character or moral flaw. Little do people know that addiction hijacks the brain and rewires it in a way that makes the condition more physiological than psychological or simply behavioral.


Let’s take a look at these points so that we can further understand addiction:

What is addiction?

Addiction is derived from a Latin term that means “enslaved by” or “bound to.” And the etymology fits. Anyone who struggles with addiction will understand this.

Addiction manifests and takes hold of the brain by inducing craving for the object of addiction (substance or behavior), paving way for loss of control, and continuing use regardless of its negative consequences.

The Brain’s Pleasure Principle

The brain reacts to pleasure from various stimuli, whether from substances, rewards, sex, good food, or other means. Pleasure happens in the brain as a central area responsible for it, the limbic system, releases dopamine. This dopamine release is associated with pleasure and motivation.

Psychoactive drugs such as meth, heroin or cocaine, creates a powerful, albeit unnatural, surge of dopamine. Addiction then develops when three things are met: the speed that promotes the release of dopamine, the intensity of the dopamine surge, and the reliability and frequency of the release. Therefore, smoking or injecting the drug to be easily absorbed into the bloodstream, creates a faster and more intense surge of dopamine compared to ingesting drugs, therefore making it more likely to lead to addiction.

Addiction as a Learning Process

Pleasure isn’t enough to cause addiction. Since dopamine is also responsible for learning, memory and motivation, addiction therefore is the right mix of circumstances that happen in the brain. Drugs release ten times more dopamine than is normal with natural rewards.

Dopamine reacts with glutamate, which is responsible for reward-related learning, which is linked to activities required for survival. This makes the craving to use drugs or perform certain activities a sustained behavior.

This reward circuit is also responsible for motivation and memory, and addiction can overload it over time, leading people to always seek the drug or the activity with increasing frequency.

As this pleasure-seeking behavior is repeatedly done, tolerance develops as the brain becomes overwhelmed. Over time, the addict finds that their substance of choice doesn’t give them the same pleasure as before anymore, therefore pushing them to use more and more frequently.

When compulsion takes over

Compulsion takes over when craving or uncontrollably wanting the drug and the pleasure it brings still persist long after the effects of the drug subsides.

As your memories of drugs and its pleasure solidifies in your mind, the brain develops a conditioned response that leads to craving and eventually, compulsion.

Certain parts of the brain, the hippocampus and amygdala, store the environmental cues associated with the desired substance and the pleasure it brings, creating memories. These are the ones responsible for the development of such cravings as well as of triggers.

Even for someone who has been treated and has become sober, these triggers and cravings can still occur. For example, a heroin addict can still bee triggered to use when he sees a syringe, putting him in danger of relapse. Also, an alcoholic can also go back to drinking just after seeing other people drink a bottle of vodka.


Contrary to stereotypes and prejudices about drug addicts, addiction is not a moral failing or a lack of will. Addiction is a condition that affects how the brain works, often irreversibly. Call or text us at 09175098826 to find out how we can help treat a loved one who has problems with addiction.


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