WHY IS CHEMICAL DEPENDENCY EDUCATION IMPORTANT?
It’s important to recognize and appreciate the powerful effects it has
Understanding substance abuse helps patients and their families get the most out of the recovery experience. To truly overcome addiction, it’s important to recognize and appreciate the powerful effects it has on all aspects of one’s physical, mental and emotional health. Chemical dependency education also helps remove some of the stigmas that surround addiction. Society has this idea of an individual struggling with addiction as a “junkie” or a criminal, stereotypes which are harmful and degrading. It’s also incorrectly assumed that substance use disorders can be overcome through sheer willpower and that professional help is only necessary if someone isn’t “strong enough” to do it on their own.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Deciding to seek help for substance use takes an incredible amount of bravery and strength. Recovery is a difficult process that delves deep into your innermost thoughts, emotions and motivations. It brings up past trauma and makes you confront the parts of yourself that were masked by drugs or alcohol. Through it all, patients experience tremendous personal growth that brings them closer to achieving sustainable, long-term recovery. In addition to helping patients and their families learn about the technicalities of addiction, chemical dependency education reminds them that their lives are worth fighting for and that recovery is possible.
WHAT IS ADDICTION?
Addiction occurs when an individual cannot stop or decrease their use of drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences they experience
It disrupts their lives and makes it difficult for them to meet daily responsibilities, overshadowing all of their other needs. As a result, individuals with a substance use disorder may find it challenging to keep a steady job, maintain personal relationships or care for their health and hygiene. Over time, changes in the brain occur that make it even more difficult to escape from the cycle of addiction without professional help. It is a chronic, progressive and life-threatening disease that can quickly spiral out of control. It is also extremely complex, affected by numerous factors such as an individual’s genetics, the presence of mental health disorders, structural changes in the brain and more. At Journey Hillside Tarzana, we explore these aspects of addiction to help patients and their families better understand this disease and how to overcome it.
Research from various studies has explored the role of genetics in addiction, suggesting that half of an individual’s risk for becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol is hereditary. Although a variety of cultural, environmental and societal factors also play a role, our genes help shape many of the factors that could predispose an individual to addiction. Aspects of our personality such as our temperament, impulsivity, risk-taking and desire to seek new experiences are partially determined by genetics, as is our brain structure, ability to respond to stress and the ways that certain substances affect us. Specific genes, such as OPRM1 and OPRK1, are responsible for the production of neurotransmitter receptors and have been linked to heroin, cocaine, amphetamine and alcohol addictions. Variations in genes that code for serotonin and GABA receptors have been linked to alcoholism, while the DRD2 gene has been associated with multiple addictions.
Although the relationship between these genes and addiction is complex, individuals with certain genetic expressions may be more vulnerable to addiction than others. A genetic predisposition makes preventative measures, chemical dependency education, stress management and mindfulness even more important in the recovery process, providing patients with the tools they need to handle difficult emotions and challenging situations.
Mental health and psychiatric disorders are chronic conditions that affect several aspects of an individual’s life, including their thoughts, behaviors, emotions and relationships with others. Many people with mental health concerns, especially if they are untreated, find it difficult to cope with their symptoms and the responsibilities of everyday life. Studies show that mental health disorders are closely linked to substance use, with National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reporting that 45 percent of those with addiction also have a mental health issue, known as co-occurring disorders or a dual diagnosis.
Mental health and substance use disorders share many common risk factors. The presence of a psychiatric condition often indicates a higher likelihood of developing a substance use disorder and vice versa. Those with a mental illness may turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate and alleviate their symptoms or to regulate their emotions. More often than not, this begins a vicious cycle in which existing psychiatric issues such as anxiety or depression are exacerbated and the need for drugs or alcohol grows.
CHANGES IN THE BRAIN
Today, we recognize how substance use affects the structure and function of the brain. Drugs and alcohol trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of motivation and happiness. When dopamine is released, it registers as pleasure in the brain and activates its reward center. This reward center is intended to give us incentive to perform life-sustaining behaviors, such as eating or engaging in sexual activity. The amounts of dopamine that these behaviors release is much smaller than that triggered by drugs and alcohol, however. Addictive substances flood the brain with 10 times the amount of dopamine, overloading the reward center and providing a shortcut to pleasure. They do this so consistently and reliably that with repeated use, the brain responds by reducing its own production of dopamine and begins to rely on drugs or alcohol to trigger its release. Over time, the brain “learns” that ingesting a particular substance is more rewarding and pleasurable than any other activity and begins to crave it above anything else.
Unfortunately, the brain can’t distinguish between naturally-derived pleasure such as food or sex and that which results from substance use. As it becomes more accustomed to the presence of dopamine-releasing substances, other rewarding behaviors such as exercise, enjoying a good meal or spending time with friends or family fall to the wayside. Eventually, it becomes difficult for an individual struggling with addiction to feel pleasure from healthy sources and they become more dependent on drugs or alcohol to function.