There’s no shortage of times throughout our adolescent years that we’re told drugs are bad for you. Yet addictive behavior impacts so many of us at some point in our lives; some more severely than others. Sometimes it’s smoking cigarettes and insisting that we’re not addicted, we’re just “social smokers.” Sometimes it’s addiction to an illegal drug such as cocaine which we use because “it seems to make people like us more.” Addictions are real and seem to sneak their way into our lives initially undetected.
We know addiction is bad, so why is it so easy to justify behaviors that we know are self-destructive? As humans, it is natural to want to be viewed as a “good person” and if people label us as otherwise it sometimes seems easier to justify our actions and claim that they “just don’t understand” than to admit our behaviors are wrong.
How do people get addicted?
Addiction isn’t all about denial and feelings. It’s a progressive disease that affects the brain. The changes that occur are chemical and impact how our brain develops and responds to stimulants. Addiction impacts the one organ in our bodies that controls everything we do.
Our actions are controlled by three parts of the brain:
- The brain stem regulates all basic functions.
- The cerebral cortex is the sensory processing center.
- The limbic system is the pleasure and reward system in the brain.
Of these three sections of the brain, the limbic system is the part impacted most by addiction. The brain naturally produces a chemical called dopamine from this area, the happy, feel-good chemical. Drug addiction changes this process in the brain by magnifying the intensity of the dopamine levels released and creates a false “norm” in the user.
After years of an addiction, the user develops a tolerance to the drug and natural releasers of dopamine just don’t seem to cut it anymore. They feel a need to raise the bar higher and higher to obtain the same level of “feel good” relief. The chemical changes in the brain caused by the addiction alter the users’ behavior and ability to rationalize.
What drives addicts to use?
There are different reasons that some individuals are drawn to drug abuse. Some suffer from other conditions such as depression. Others use to cover up negative feelings from situations they’ve never fully healed from such as a bad experience, a tragic accident or the passing of a loved one. No matter what the source of pain may be, the coping method in addicts is the same – numbing through chemical abuse.
How do they justify it?
Many times it seems much easier to handle negative feelings through drug use rather than through other methods such as counseling with a licensed therapist. Sometimes it may feel like the only way. Addicts may feel like drugs make them a better person to be around and therefore using drugs becomes a positive habit they perceive to increase their quality of life. Unfortunately continued use only results in increased irrational behaviors. This disillusioned world where drugs play a positive role in their lives is known as cognitive dissonance.
How do we put an end to the illusion?
Chemical addiction is difficult to overcome, as it requires the addict to come to terms with reality and understand change is needed. Self-awareness is the first hurdle to overcome. It is crucial that they understand the impact their addiction is having on their thinking and behaviors. For those helping a loved one come to terms with their own reality can be an uphill battle. Here are several things to keep in mind:
- Don’t take lies and deception regarding addictive behaviors personally
- Don’t avoid issues by feigning ignorance regarding the reality of their addiction.
- Don’t make excuses or shield them from the full consequences of their actions.
- Create a supportive environment – sometimes the truth hurts, but addicts need to feel safe enough to be honest about their addictive behaviors.
Once an addict is ready to seek out a life of sobriety, an addiction therapist can help walk them through each of the reasons they use to justify their behavior and address the truth surrounding why these beliefs are false. Exploring these truths and painting a positive picture to a clean lifestyle will put meaning behind their reason for seeking recovery.