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Understanding Addiction: Why Do Some People Become Addicted?

BeSmartBeWell.com explores the science of addiction.

Chicago, April 17, 2013 /PRNewswire/ — Addiction can destroy careers and ruin lives. It can be devastating to watch a loved one descend into addiction, and family members often can’t understand why an addict continues to use drugs or alcohol despite the ruinous consequences.

In a series of new videos at besmartbewell.com/addiction, leading experts explain how addiction affects the brain and offer insight into why it is so hard for addicts to stop using drugs and alcohol.

“Addiction is a disease. It’s a brain condition that involves compulsive use of a substance,” says Wilson Compton, M.D., division director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In the video Addiction: What Is It?, he states: “We know it’s a brain disease because the brains are different in people who have addiction than in those who don’t.”

How a User Becomes an Addict
More than 20 million Americans have a drug or alcohol problem, according to NIDA. Most addicts start out as casual drug users or drinkers, but, over time, repeated drug use and drinking can change how the brain works. Substance abuse actually “rewires” the brain so that addicts begin to crave the drug above all else, even though they know it’s bad for them.

“Two parts of the brain are involved: The limbic system that drives the behavior and the frontal lobes that should stop the behavior, but isn’t working right,” explains Marvin Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer of Hazelden, in a video at Be Smart. Be Well.

Karen, a recovering alcoholic featured at besmartbewell.com/addiction, was an Ivy League graduate and successful attorney. She started out drinking wine after work to deal with job stress. As time went on, she started needing—and drinking—more and more, until she was drinking three bottles of wine a night. 

“I was ashamed,” she says in the Treat It Like a Disease video. “Because I didn’t want my husband to find bottles around the house, I would put them in my briefcase and walk down the street and dump them in the garbage cans on my way to work.”

How to Help a Drug User or Alcoholic
Key to helping addicts like Karen, say the experts featured at besmartbewell.com/addiction, is to remember that the addict’s brain is not functioning properly—it has been damaged by addiction— so he or she is not able to make rational decisions about the need for addiction treatment.

“The most important advice I can think of for a family that’s going through addiction would be to remember that this is a disease,” Dr. Seppala says.

Loved ones should also remember that addiction is a chronic brain disease, which means it is a long-lasting condition that can be managed, but not cured. Like other chronic diseases, it requires treatment and ongoing care, and recovering addicts need loved ones’ support even after treatment is completed.

“It’s a disease not unlike diabetes,” says John, who was addicted to painkillers and is featured in Treat It Like a Disease. He overcame his addiction with treatment, and he maintains it with ongoing support from his family.

“During his recovery process he would hit certain milestones and he got a little medallion,” John’s daughter Jenna says. “He gave it to me and it reminds me to give him encouragement and that I’m always there for him. He’s not alone.”

Learn More
Besmartbewell.com/addiction provides practical information about the roots of addiction and how to help an alcoholic or drug addict. The website includes:

At the site, visitors can also sign up for the bimonthly Spotlight Newsletter and biweekly News Alerts for in-depth articles and breaking news on addiction and other important health topics.

About Be Smart. Be Well.
BeSmartBeWell.com is sponsored by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Divisions of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

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An Ivy League graduate and successful attorney, Karen is also a recovering alcoholic who used to drop her wine bottles in the dumpster on her way to work.
An Ivy League graduate and successful attorney, Karen is also a recovering alcoholic who used to drop her wine bottles in the dumpster on her way to work.
Sofia, Karen and John are addicts, not bad people. They’ve learned how to overcome addiction and manage their disease.
Sofia, Karen and John are addicts, not bad people. They’ve learned how to overcome addiction and manage their disease.

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Related Links

Addiction: Habits2HaveSM



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