Many people do not understand why individuals develop substance use disorders, or how substances change the brain to foster compulsive substance misuse.
What people often underestimate is the complexity of substance use disorders—that it is a disease that impacts the brain and because of that, stopping substance misuse is not simply a matter of willpower. Through scientific advances, researchers understand much more about how substances work in the brain, and how substance use disorders can be successfully treated to help people stop misusing and resume productive lives.
Substance use disorders are chronic, often relapsing brain diseases that cause compulsive substance seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the individual. Substance use disorder is a brain disease because the misuse of substances leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain.
While the initial decision to use substances is voluntary, over time the changes in the brain caused by repeated misuse can affect a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions, and at the same time send intense impulses to misuse. It is because of these changes in the brain that it is so challenging for a person who is suffering from substance use disorder to stop using.
Fortunately, there are pathways to recovery that help people to counteract substance use disorders’ powerful disruptive effects and regain control.
Treatment approaches that are tailored to each patient’s substance use patterns and any co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social problems can lead to sustained recovery. Similar to other chronic, relapsing diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, substance use disorders can be managed successfully.
With other chronic disease however, it is not uncommon for a person to relapse and begin using again. Relapse, while a setback, does not by itself mean failure. It simply indicates that the treatment should be adjusted or that an alternative treatment should be sought for the individual.