Human beings have been ingesting drugs and alcohol for a long time. But many traditional ideas about addiction and drugs have fallen away in light of modern science. We now know how the human animal becomes addicted to drugs, and we also know what to do about it!
It’s not about blame, and it’s not about judgment. It’s about the chemistry of the mind and its interaction with substances that have known effects on it.
Keep reading for your quick guide to understanding the question: why do people get addicted to drugs?
Two Parts of the Mind
The brain evolved along with the human body. We are the smartest creatures on the planet, but we also possess many of the attributes that all animals have. We share basic instincts with all animals.
It is useful to understand the difference between conscious thought, and unconscious thought. Modern psychologists speak of the voice of the executive function and of drives. Whatever terminology you want to use, we often associate ourselves with the rational, and forget about the irrational or the subrational.
All animals have an instinct to seek out food. This is an unconscious drive, that informs the conscious behavior that higher mammals perform. Humans react to the same brain circuits in exactly the same ways that other mammals do. While a chipmunk might go out in search of a walnut, and a buffalo might move on to greener pastures, so to a human might go to the market and buy a hot dog.
The going to the market and buying a hot dog is done by the “executive” function of the mind. When the cashier says that the bill is $6.07, your rational mind calculates that a $5 bill won’t be enough, and looks through the wallet for more money.
Why do People Get Addicted to Drugs?
It’s the unconscious drive of “hunger” that directs someone to get food. The important thing to understand about the different parts of the mind is that the rational part has no control over the unconscious, irrational part.
At least not for long periods of time. If you become hungry, and you drive past a fast food restaurant, you may have the impulse to pull in and get some junk food. Your rational mind can overcome your hunger, and you can make a decision to keep driving on.
But you can’t make a decision, to stop being hungry. You can decide, “well I’ll have a salad instead of a hamburger.” But you can’t say to yourself, “You know, I’m not going to be hungry anymore.”
After just a few seconds of not concentrating, you’ll realize you’re hungry again. The longer you put off satisfying the unconscious desire, the more it will enter the mind.
This is the key to understanding why people do drugs in an addictive manner sometimes. Sometimes the brain patterns that control the desire for addictive drugs, descend into the unconscious, or irrational parts of the mind.
Logic Doesn’t Work on the Lizard Brain
Once the drug-seeking behavior becomes an impulsive drive, it is just as impossible for the addict to “decide” to stop doing drugs as it would be impossible for a healthy person to “decide” to stop being hungry, or “decide” to stop being tired.
Just like your animal instincts will tell you “I am hungry”, the brain can be taught to say “I need to get high.” The drugs become associated with the primal reward system in the brain.
It is impossible for an addict to say to himself, “Stop WANTING to get high.” The basic animal rewards response is in play. When the animal gets hungry, it seeks food. When the addict is triggered by his addiction, he seeks drugs.
There is no “decision” made. It is a drive at this point and falls below the level of control of the conscious mind.
The human animal is designed to deal with the concept of being hungry. We aren’t evolutionarily prepared to deal with addictive drugs. Refined and potent drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl are new in the world. We haven’t adapted to them as a species.
When the human being is exposed to these very dangerous substances, the pleasure centers of our minds are excited. We associated the good feelings with the drug, and begin a cycle that soon leads down the road to addiction.
Help is Out There!
The good news about this theory of addiction is that there is help available! First of all, if you actually stop taking the substance, you will begin to roll back the pathways of the mind that re-enforce the behavior.
It might take a residential treatment facility to help get you started. But this is still good news. It means that human science has figured out ways to help you and that there really is hope!
Why are Opioids So Addictive?
Opioids are a class of drugs that act directly on the brain. They are shaped like the natural opioid receptors in the brain. These are the “pain receptors” that exist primarily in the central nervous system, the brain, and the peripheral nerves.
Because of their pain blocking ability, opioids also have the ability to produce euphoria in the people who take them. The problem is that people develop an addiction and a tolerance at the same time. Just as the drug starts working less and less, the person needs it more and more.
This can lead to a hellish cycle of addiction in people who become addicted to opioid drugs. As we have seen, these drugs affect the mind on the subconscious level, altering behavior in ways that the person may not be able to voluntarily control.
Get Help Now
There is a stigma associated with addiction. This way of thinking is left over from another time when science hadn’t understood how certain chemicals can have addictive effects on the mind. Why do people get addicted to drugs is a question that we’ve now answered.
If you are addicted to drugs or know someone who is, you should know that science has made great strides in understanding the chemical mechanisms that are involved in addiction. Treatment options exist that really work, and don’t rely on outdated models of moral judgment to bring relief to patients.
Check out our blog for more articles on addiction, treatment and healthy recovery.