Addiction is a Brain Disease that can be Successfully Treated in Young Adults


Aaron Lopez, LSAC

In recent years there have been great breakthroughs regarding the neuroscience of addiction. These findings indicate there are changes in the reward center of the brain. These changes are initiated by the person feeling an excessive amount of stress. The addicted person then begins to rely on the chemical to relieve stress. As the disease of addiction develops the midbrain begins to “depend on the substance for survival.” The successful treatment of the chemically dependent person requires abstinence (Hoffman, 2003). This period of abstinence will allow the brain to begin adjusting to functioning without the foreign chemicals. The chemically dependent person will also need to develop skills to cope with common stressors. In young adults, it will be also be necessary to address their developmental needs (Gillispie, 2006). Let’s first take look at the emotional state of the chemically dependent person without the substance: restless, irritable, and discontented.

Addiction is a brain disease; more specifically it is stress-induced deregualtion of the brain’s hedonic system- its ‘pleasure sense’ (McCauley & Reich, 2007). This means that the chemically dependent person cannot derive pleasure from daily activities because they are probably feeling overwhelmed. Furthermore, the addicted person has compromised coping skills that hamper their ability to deal with common stressors. The natural state of the alcoholic (addict), as stated in the text Alcoholics Anonymous, is restless, irritable and discontented (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001). It is amazing that the text Alcoholics Anonymous, written in 1939, described the alcoholic so well. And much of the wisdom found in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups is relevant to the recovery of young adults. If we look at the term “restless,” it is actually listed as a symptom of hyperactivity in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We now have the clinical term Depression which was then described as discontented. We often see individuals with chemical dependency problems also have “authority problems” or “anger problems” which could also be depicted as “irritable.”

When an addicted person says they are self-medicating, many of them are right on target. It has been estimated that over 50 % of chemically dependent individuals also suffer from at least one mental illness (Storie, 2006). In essence the neurotransmitters in the midbrain, particularly the dopamine system, are not working correctly (McCauley & Reich, 2007). Well-meaning loved ones often try to treat a specific symptom that the addict displays as opposed to the symptom and the chemical dependency. They try to treat only the “restless”, “irritable” or “discontented” symptoms. There has been significant progress in treating these symptoms with psychotropic medications. However, if the individual continues to drink or use other drugs the benefit of such medication is nullified. The addicted person may modify the prescribed amount or frequency of their medication in conjunction with their drug use, or not take it at all. This is because the medication does not provide instant relief that the midbrain craves. This may leave the addicted person and their family confused and worse yet feeling hopeless that the addicted person is not improving despite treatment.

That is why it is crucial that chemically dependent persons get appropriate treatment that will allow them to maintain abstinence. Then it becomes the old question of, “Which came first the chicken and the egg?” Ideally the addicted person should abstain from the substances so that a more accurate picture of the underlying issues can be formulated (Buelow & Buelow, 1998). This can be accomplished with thorough psychological testing. This will help rule out if their behaviors are a result of their addiction or whether there is an underlying diagnosis that would benefit from psychotropic medications. Again the addicted person should remain abstinent for a period of time to determine if medication is indicated to treat any underlying diagnoses.

Thus it seems to the outside observer and often to the addicted person that abstinence would alleviate the unwanted behaviors of their drug use. This is true to an extent. The alcoholic is no longer being arrested for drunken driving and the heroin addict is no longer putting themselves at risk by injecting the drug. This will relieve a great deal of stress in their lives. However, as mentioned earlier, the true nature of the disease is an inability to handle stress. That is why a person may report feeling worse after they have gotten sober.

It is imperative that the clinical professional help the addicted person develop skills to cope with daily stressors and to provide them with assistance in building in sober support network (Gillispie, 2006). For young adults, the 12-Step model of recovery has values that correlate with their developmental needs. Young adults may resist including 12-Step support groups as an adjunct to therapy. However, 12-Step support groups often reinforce cognitive behavioral techniques that therapists use with chemically dependent clients to learn new behavior and thinking patterns (Duffy, 2006). For example, the common AA Phrase, “This too shall pass”, moves the person thinking away from catastrophically. It is very common for chemically dependent persons to have rigid thinking patterns. As the amount of time the person remains abstinent increase, the reward center of the brain begins to recalibrate. The dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitter systems will return to the homeostatic level that existed before the person began using substance. With enough time, and if needed, medication, the person’s midbrain will begin derive pleasure from every day activities. Deriving pleasure from daily accomplishments and the ability to cope with stress will help the addicted person maintain abstinence from detrimental psychoactive substances.

Treatment Success Stories

In the same manner that individuals from all walks of life can be affected by addiction, so, too can they achieve the success of long-term recovery.

Highly paid business executives and those who have been homeless; former "life of the party" types and people who drank only in secret; adolescents, teenagers, adults and senior citizens – all of these people have recovered from alcoholism.

Some of them simply decided one day to take charge of their problem and enroll in a professional treatment program. Others were ordered into treatment by courts or other legal entities. Still others entered programs because they were under intense pressure from their families.

  • Some people are able to recover after only one residential stay at a treatment center.
  • Others have to enter more than once.
  • Relapses — that is, occasional returns to drinking — are now considered a predictable part of the recovery process.
  • Some people keep going to support meetings such as Alcoholic Anonymous for their entire lives.
  • Others are able to remain sober without such meetings.

Regardless of their reasons for entering treatment, these people share one important experience: successful longtime recovery.

Many famous people have successfully stopped allowing alcohol to ruin their lives and careers. Among the prominent figures who have overcome alcoholism President George W. Bush; actors Drew Barrymore, Melissa Gilbert, Dick Van Dyke and Kelsey Grammer; singer Billy Joel; astronaut Buzz Aldrin and writer Stephen King.

You can add your name to this list — and your first step is to phone the toll-free Alcohol Abuse Treatment Resource Center.