We’re a nation of people who like to believe we are capable of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We think we can overcome enormous obstacles just through the sheer will of our intentions and hard work. So, when we hear about those who’ve succumbed to addiction, we may choose to tell ourselves that people addicted to drugs or alcohol should gather the inner strength and willpower to quit. These entrenched beliefs are part of the reason why addiction is misunderstood. Most of us are not aware of the risk factors that lead people to abuse drugs and alcohol. We would be surprised to know that there is a scientific explanation for why addiction occurs.
Why Do Some See Addiction as a Moral Failure or Weakness?
It’s easy to witness the behavior of those suffering from a substance use disorder and quickly dismiss it as representative of an individual who doesn’t have a moral code or who can’t control their impulses due to moral weakness. We become numb to images of criminal activity or what we view as “self-destruction” and pass judgment on these people.
However, when we step back and learn the risk factors for addiction and how the brain rewires itself to reward substance abuse, we can more easily dispense with the idea that those struggling with addiction should be blamed for their difficulties.
Risk Factors for Drug and Alcohol Addiction
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that genes determine as much as 50% of substance addiction risk.  Some people are predisposed to have a different chemical reaction to drugs or alcohol. One that would fast-forward the process of physical dependence compared to others who use the substance.
Dual Diagnosis means you suffer from both mental illness and a substance use disorder. Brain chemistry responsible for mental illness can actually lead to changes in the brain that make the addiction more pronounced. It’s also possible for substance use to rewire the brain to develop mental illness. When you falsely believe that drugs or alcohol can relieve your mental illness symptoms, you may become trapped in a vicious cycle of reactive brain chemistry.
Abused or neglected children and teens may turn to drugs or alcohol to escape their emotional pain. But even young people who have a stable home life may succumb to peer pressure, and they likely do not have the intellectual or emotional maturity to know how to quit if they become addicted.
Immature brain development may be one reason adolescents choose to make risky decisions, such as experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Those substances are especially detrimental to the developing brain. Continued use could increase the risk of addiction or mental health issues. 
Choice of Drug
Method of Use
Smoking or injecting a drug reaches the bloodstream faster than if you swallow it. Drugs you swallow must first pass through your liver (the liver acts as a filter) before they reach your brain. Studies have shown that drugs administered via injection may increase the risk of physical dependence. 
How Does Brain Chemistry Affect Addiction? Is Brain Chemistry Related to Why Addiction is Misunderstood?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It’s responsible for releasing endorphins that provide pleasure and motivation, affecting attention and memory.
Drugs can boost dopamine levels 10 times higher than normal, thus flooding the brain with this chemical.  As the brain becomes tolerant to dopamine, it requires more to get the same effect. Eventually, the brain’s reward center becomes overstimulated. It reacts by producing less dopamine or reducing dopamine receptors.
Since dopamine contributes to motivation, an effort to keep rewarding the brain with more drugs will eventually lead to a situation where the brain is essentially starving for the chemical that produces motivation. Deprived of the brain chemical that produces motivation, it’s no wonder that an individual who develops an addiction can’t decide just to quit. The effect of substance abuse has impaired the brain to such a degree that medical professionals agree that addiction can be defined as a disease.
We wouldn’t tell someone with diabetes or high blood pressure that they are responsible for their illness. Addiction is a chronic disease and must be managed like one. Recovery from addiction requires several types of interventions. You must first eliminate physical dependence and then rewire the brain to derive joy and pleasure from sources other than drugs and alcohol.
Understanding Why Addiction is Misunderstood Can Lead to Less Shame and More Efforts to Promote Healing
At Ocean Hills Recovery, our mission is to create a customized treatment for those suffering from a substance use disorder or dual diagnosis. Our highly-trained and supportive staff understands which factors lead to addiction. We can teach you the skills you’ll need to lead a joyful and productive life without drugs or alcohol. There’s no shame in wanting to turn your life around. Contact us today, and we’ll let you know how to get started.
About the author:
Greg opened his home and heart to alcoholics and addicts in 2003. He is a Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor (CATCI). Starting in 2009 Greg has fostered the growth of Ocean Hills Recovery into one of the most respected and effective treatment centers in the area and has been working with people with addictions since March of 2001. Greg believes in a holistic approach to recovery. His focus is on drug alcohol addiction treatment with a combination of 12 Step work, therapy and counseling, and the rejuvenation of the body through healthful eating and exercise. He has designed his program to foster a family-like atmosphere and believes that people in recovery are just beginning their lives. He encourages the people he works with to learn to enjoy life in sobriety. Greg is married to Nicole; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.