Addiction is a tricky disease. If you’re addicted to anything, you probably think you have control. You think you can use willpower to overcome your demons. But if that’s your thought process, it’s wrong.
And if your loved one is struggling with addiction; the recovery process can be even more frustrating. You can’t imagine why they don’t have enough will to stop ruining their own lives.
But the truth is that willpower is only part of the equation. If you want to beat addiction, you’re going to need a whole lot more than just the will to do so.
This can be a difficult truth to swallow, so let’s explore the reasons why willpower isn’t enough to beat addiction.
- Addiction is truly a disease
When you think of disease, you probably think of things like diabetes and cancer. But addiction is another type of disease, and it can’t be willed away any easier than you can use willpower to overcome diabetes.
To understand this point, you must first understand an important distinction. The word addiction has a different meaning than the phrase “drug abuse.” If you are addicted, you are abusing drugs. But if you’re abusing drugs, you may or may not be addicted.
Addiction happens after a period of drug abuse, and it’s a chemical change that occurs in the brain. When this change takes place, the person loses much of their free will, and that’s when the disease of addiction takes over.
On the other hand, someone is abusing drugs and not yet addicted may use willpower to overcome their problem.
- Addiction reduces natural pleasure
Many changes happen within the brain from the first time you use an illicit substance. And the more you use, the more the brain changes. Let’s take opioids, for example.
When you take opioid painkillers, your brain gets flooded with a surge of dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) associated with pleasure, so this is what causes the “high” feeling. The brain also produces dopamine naturally, so it’s well-equipped to handle this neurotransmitter in small doses. But with an artificially enhanced supply, as you’d get from opioid drugs, the brain gets overloaded.
When the brain can’t handle the dopamine surge, it gets to work trying to “turn down the volume.” It does this by closing some of your natural opioid receptors and reducing the amount of natural dopamine your body produces. The more drugs you take, the more this will happen. The result that you’ll notice is an increased tolerance.
So, you’ll need to take more drugs to get the same effect and the brain continues to change and rely on the artificial supply. Before long, you won’t be producing hardly any natural dopamine and the only pleasure you’ll get is from drugs.
Imagine how much willpower you’d need to remove the only thing in life that gives you any semblance of pleasure.
- Addiction rewires your brain
Us humans are hardwired to seek pleasure, and that’s usually a good thing. Things that are pleasurable are typically good for us or for our species as a whole (as is the case with reproduction). But as our society has advanced, we’ve found many ways to cheat the system. Alcohol, illicit drugs, and even many foods can trick our brains’ reward center into thinking they are good things when they are actually harmful.
In the case of drugs and alcohol, the dopamine surge we get sends messages to the brain that are imprinted in our memory. Memories of the things we’ve done to feel good are associated with positive feelings, and the brain goes into overdrive to get more of that pleasure.
This is something that happens naturally, and willpower often works to quell those desires. Think about how much pleasure you get from eating a cupcake. And then, you can think about all the reasons why you shouldn’t, and avoid the behavior. In the case of addiction, the same forces are at play, but they are much stron001ger (just as the dopamine surge is stronger with opioids). The forces are so strong that someone who is addicted loses the power of choice.
- Willpower won’t fix the underlying issues
Because addiction makes changes to the brain, willing them away simply won’t work. Even if you’re successful at staying away from drugs, it probably won’t be permanent. People fall victim to addiction for various reasons, whether it’s a physical pain or emotional trauma. And unfortunately, willpower doesn’t fix the underlying issue.
- Willpower is isolationist
Relying on willpower alone means that it’s up to you and you alone to fix your problem. That means you’re relying completely on your own motivation. And let’s face it, motivation wavers. You can go strong for a day or two, but when a bad mood hits, you’re likely to fall back on bad habits. In the case of addiction, it’s important to have a support system.
If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, consider medically assisted treatment. Willpower alone is not enough.