You have heard the adage, “Just Say No to Drugs,” but is it really that easy to turn drugs or alcohol down, especially if a person is already suffering from substance use disorder? Is it really all a matter of willpower and being strong enough to resist the urge?

Experts do not think so.

It is common for people who know or love someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol to question why the individual simply cannot just stop using their drug of choice, especially considering how negatively their drug use is affecting their lives and the lives of those around them.

It may help family members and friends of people addicted to alcohol or drugs to know that stopping excessive drug or alcohol use is not just a matter of making a conscious decision. There may be physiological reasons that can explain the need to continue using drugs or alcohol, namely, the role of the chemical dopamine.

Dopamine’s Role in the Difficulty of Resisting Drugs

When drugs are consumed, they enter the brain and impact specific receptors. In particular, misuse of drugs can stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to control the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Dopamine helps to develop a reward circuit in the brain, and addictive drugs trigger the release of dopamine, similar to other sources of pleasure.

Addictive drugs are so powerful that they release an extreme amount of dopamine, creating intense feelings of pleasure or satisfaction that make drugs increasingly difficult to resist.

Dopamine modifies the brain and essentially triggers it to continue wanting drugs to constantly achieve that feeling of pleasure that taking drugs or drinking alcohol provides. With continued use of drugs, powerful memories develop that associate drug use with feelings of pleasure. Even long after the misuse of drugs or alcohol has stopped, the brain still remembers the pleasurable feelings that drugs can induce, making relapse highly possible.

The reward system of the brain prompts humans to repeat behaviors that feel good and that may even be necessary. For instance, eating food is influenced by the reward system through a mechanism that tells you when you are hungry and when it is time to eat. As this system has evolved, you will now do things that are not necessarily required for survival, but simply because they feel good, such as taking drugs.

Certain experiences are so powerful that their messages are strong enough to entice the brain to repeat the behaviors. In essence, drugs change the brain.

The role of dopamine in addiction can explain why it can be extremely difficult for people suffering from substance use disorder to put their willpower in action to “just say no.” As such, it is important for people to see addiction as a disease rather than just a choice that substance users make.

Beating Substance Use Disorder Can Be More Successful With Addiction Treatment Programs

Clearly, it can be almost impossible to try to beat addiction as a result of how drug misuse can alter dopamine and inevitably modify the reward pathways in the brain. As a result, fighting addiction alone can often be futile. Luckily, there is help available.

In an effective addiction treatment program, people suffering from substance use disorder can take advantage of outside help from professionals who are well-versed in applying specific treatment methods to deal with addictive behaviors. With the proper counseling, educational sessions, and medication therapy in a supportive rehab facility, those suffering from substance use disorder can finally overcome their addiction and go on to lead normal, healthy, happy lives.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.