Why can’t people who have an addiction “just stop” using drugs?
We get asked this question a lot. Sometimes it’s hard for friends and family members to understand why their loved one can’t just quit using the substance that is hurting them.
The reason it’s so difficult for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction is that it isn’t just a habit—it’s a disease. When a person takes drugs or drinks alcohol over a period of time, it can change their brain circuits. In fact, addiction changes the way that crucial parts of the brain function so much that the person has a very hard time stopping their use of drugs or alcohol—even when they want to.
Researchers call this the “brain disease model of addiction.” They view drug and alcohol addiction not as a problem caused by a lack of willpower, but instead as an illness that needs treatment.
Addiction beats up your brain
Brain science research has shown that addiction harms the brain in at least three ways:
It makes the brain’s reward circuits less sensitive. Addictive drugs cause the brain to release dopamine, a chemical that makes a person feel pleasure. If the person continues to take the drug over time, however, the circuit can become imbalanced. To get the same reward they got when they first used the drug, they need to take larger amounts of it. And natural rewards no longer give the person pleasure, causing them to lose interest in things they used to enjoy, like spending time with friends.
It increases the brain’s reaction to stress. Some brain circuits control our responses to stressful situations. In the brain of a person with addiction, that system of circuits becomes overactive, making people feel very stressed when they aren’t using drugs.
- It weakens regions of the brain that help a person make good decisions. Drug addiction also affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps a person make decisions and control their impulses. It's like their car has worn-out brakes: even if they try to stop using the drug, they may not be able to control their impulse and take the drug anyway.
While many factors influence whether or not a person will become addicted to drugs or alcohol, teens are especially at risk. A person’s brain doesn’t stop developing until they’re in their early 20s; until then, their brain’s circuits are especially sensitive to the effects of drugs.
Treating the disease
Understanding addiction as a disease that changes the brain is helping researchers develop better treatments for it. Many people need help to overcome addiction. This doesn’t mean they’re weak; it means they’re fighting an illness that is tough (but not impossible!) to overcome.
Do you know someone who needs help? Visit findtreatment.samhsa.gov or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to find addiction treatment near you.