When you hear the word “addiction,” what comes to mind? Chances are that you think of your loved one who is dealing with their addiction. But not everyone thinks of addiction in a humanizing light or sees that a person is not merely their addiction. There are both psychosocial and neurological components that get lost in the stigma surrounding addiction, and it is important to discuss how these elements impact us and the human connection we have with someone who is struggling with addiction.
For years, scientists, clinicians, and the general public have labored under the assumption that a chemical in the brain called dopamine is responsible for driving addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives us that “feel good” sensation we get after engaging in satisfying a survival instinct, such as sex or eating.
That understanding of dopamine has led to the “dopamine hypothesis,” which holds this neurotransmitter accountable for, at the very least, enhancing the “feel good” sensation drugs and alcohol can provide. Yet, wouldn’t this mean that anyone who uses drugs should become addicted? Wouldn’t it also mean that one drug could be substituted for another with equally addictive results? Acceptandconquer.com, a company designed as an alternative to AA, defines substance abuse as the overindulgence in or dependence on an addictive substance. This means that anything, like food or the internet though things like drugs and alcohol have chemical reasons why they are more easily addictive, can become addictive, even if they don’t directly affect the dopamine neurotransmitter.
The dopamine hypothesis has been challenged by numerous brain imaging techniques. These scans have shown that different addictive substances have varied impacts on differing regions of the brain. Areas responsible for memory, learning, mood, and emotions get impacted by drugs.
Since each drug works a little bit differently than the others, the person who is using drugs will often try several different things and end up sticking with the drug that has the greatest impact. For example, heroin has little-to-no effect on the reward system in the brain, yet it is a powerfully addictive opioid.
With many new scientific discoveries being made regarding the neurological nature of addiction, it is time to branch out from the dopamine hypothesis. Neurologically, it is important to look at other chemical pathways in the brain and understand that they also play roles in addiction. Take, for example, how alcohol creates specific interactions between dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and glutamate pathways.
Treatment for addiction should not be a one-size-fits-all model. Previously, treatment models have centered almost exclusively upon controlling dopamine levels in the brain but have ignored other neurochemicals. This has, for many people, rendered treatment ineffective. Doctors have recently found success using suboxone to treat addiction. These treatments are found to be most effective when paired with cognitive behavior therapy.
If we are going to break free from the past and work harder to strengthen the human connection we have with people who have addictions, we need to accept that, not only do we need to treat other areas of the brain, but we need to address the entire human being.
Think about your loved one who is battling addiction. What might psychological and social factors be causing them to use drugs, alcohol, or resort to another sort of addiction?
Rethinking addiction begins with breaking down barriers. Communicating with your loved one is essential. This can help you understand the psychosocial components of their addiction. Your loved one is unique; they have experienced different things and felt different emotions throughout their lifetime. They might not have developed secure attachment styles or feel like they have many people who are there for them.
This is where the human connection really comes into play. Addictions provide temporary relief from deeply-rooted psychosocial issues. Instead of relying solely on medications, establishing a deeper connection with someone facing addiction might be what benefits them the most.
Your loved one is more than their addiction. Remind them of this by strengthening the human connection the two of you share while they also receive professional help.
For more information and resources, check out or video blog, which details and explains different aspects of addiction, such as what causes make people more acceptable to addiction, people discussing their fight with addiction, or how addiction affects the mind. There is hope for you, or someone in your life struggling. There is hope.