Hijacking of the Brain

Presentation from National Drug Court Institute addresses addiction

by Nicolle Mayo & Kristine Worthington – July 25, 2017

While some people would beg to differ, research indicates that addiction is a disease. The Hijacking of the Brain, presented by Carl Dawson, M.S., MUC, LPC, Q-SAC, addresses this controversy, among others, when talking about how stimulants, sedative-hypnotics, opioids, hallucinogens, depressants, and other drugs affect our body and brain. Articulate and genuinely honest, Carl Dawson provided exceptional research that addressed addiction as a disease that we, as a community, should be responsible for fighting against.

“Addiction” as he defined it has a biological basis that begins in our reptilian brain, which is responsible for our body’s basic functions of breathing, heartbeat, mating, dominance, etc. Whether it be to drugs, pornography, video games, food, or gambling, all of these behaviors operate from the same addictive mechanism in the brain. Addiction, as Carl Dawson put it, is very different from dependence. We can be dependent on medicine (to survive), but when we abuse it and are overcome by behaviors and thoughts of the drug (or other addictive behavior), we are in trouble! The effects of addiction on the body are profound. Addiction is dangerous, but recovery is possible. With the help of a village and the hard effort of the addict, there is hope for recovery.

When tackling addiction, it is important to understand how the brain works. We need to understand the factors involved in developing addiction, as well as those that lead to recovery. The biopsychosocial (biological, psychological, social) model gives us a peak into contributors to addiction and how to go about the treatment process. Our biology, largely dependent on our parents, has a huge role in addiction, but just because we have a genetic predisposition, doesn’t mean that we will just automatically develop an addiction. For addiction to occur, we have to be actively involved with whatever substance that poses a risk to us. It may be surprising to hear there is no addiction gene, but rather, there are many genes that orchestrate together causing a genetic predisposition to addiction. About 60% of addiction can be attributed to genes, but the other 40% is linked to our environment, or social influences of our lives. Psychological factors, like mental health, personality, extreme stress, impulsivity, cognitive deficits, emotional dysregulation, etc. provide further explanation for how an addiction might develop with genetic and/or social factors. 

Just as the biopsychosocial model helps explain how addiction occurs, this model is also used to treat addiction. Effective treatment requires at least 6 months even when the person is fully committed to stopping their addiction, and has a team of professionals helping them. Although some can kick addiction themselves, this is very rare. But, when it happens, it is very impressive. Determined commitment to recovery, over a long period of time, however, is not all that is needed to kick an addiction. Once a person has experienced the tumultuous ride of an addiction, their brain is literally changed. The ability of the brain to be modified in its structure and function is called neuroplasticity. The brain is never the same after coming out of an addiction. This does not mean a person won’t recover, but it does mean that relapse is never too far away and that is the greatest enemy. Relapse. Triggers. These words should be well-known to those suffering from addiction. If triggers (people, places, and things) that are a cause for engaging in addictions are present, anyone is vulnerable to relapsing. To prevent a relapse, the recovering addict must move forward knowing that “once addicted, you are always addicted”. Relapse prevention hinges on recognition and avoidance of the triggers that will call them back to addiction. “One day at a time”, may be a phrase you are familiar with in the addiction world. This statement holds true. Biology. Psychology. Social activities. These three things also keep a person sober from addiction. When we have an awareness of our genetic risk factors, psychological vulnerabilities, and social triggers, we are in more control to stop our addiction. But, we have to recognize that relapse is almost always inevitable (at least once).

The good news is, our brain engages in neuroplasticity (change) after halting addictive behaviors, though it is still different than it was prior to the addiction. Our brain has the capacity to heal itself, in regenerating the basic foundation of thought, feelings, and actions, so that success is still possible.
We thank everyone in the community who is working toward increased awareness and understanding of addiction.

Videography: Andrew Moore, John Vogt
Video Editing: Andrew Moore
Writing: Nicolle Mayo, Kristine Worthington
Anchor: Rhonda Pearson
Correspondent: Nicolle Mayo, Kristine Worthington

Produced by Vogt Media
Funded by UPMC Susquehanna, Laurel Health Centers

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