Changing Perceptions about Addiction and Recovery

Dr. Ximena Sanchez-Samper

Ximena Sanchez-Samper, MD is a Board- Certified Addiction Psychiatrist who obtained her degree as a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and completed her Addictions Fellowship through the combined Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital / Brigham and Women’s Hospital Addictions Fellowship program in 2004.

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Overcoming Stigma: Addiction and Recovery

Over 46 million American men and women over the age of 12 have a substance use disorder, making up about 17% of the entire U.S. population. Unfortunately, only approximately 6% of these individuals seek out treatment. This leaves a large percentage of people struggling with a substance use disorder not getting the help they need to overcome their addiction.

One of the most common reasons that these individuals fail to receive treatment is due to their perceptions about addiction recovery. Many times, feelings of shame can prevent a person from seeking treatment. Negative language, beliefs, and attitudes around the subject of addiction can create an insurmountable barrier for those who are in need of active recovery.

Understanding the Concept of Perception

Perception is defined as how we become aware of and respond to the stimuli in our world. Since many different factors determine our perception of something, each person’s perception may be a bit different than the next. 

A significant factor that influences our perceptions is our past experiences. The same thing could happen to two different people, such as a dog jumping up on them when they walk in the door. An individual who owns a dog may perceive this event as a dog’s excitement. However, those bitten by a dog are more likely to perceive the dog jumping on them as a threat.

While both of these individuals experienced the same event, they perceived the situation in unique ways. This concept of perception rolls over into all aspects of life, including the topic of addiction and recovery. To further clarify this concept of perception, let’s take a look at the following example that is specific to addiction:

A friend informs two different people that they are going to be seeking out recovery for their substance use disorder. The first person has no direct experience with substance use disorder and views their friend as shameful due to their subconscious preconceived stigma about addiction. The second person formerly dealt with substance use disorder and views their friend as brave for seeking out professional help.

Both individuals experienced the same conversation with their friends about recovery. However, both individuals have very different perceptions about what that means. It is important to remember that perceptions can change with knowledge and experience.

The Addiction Stigma

One of the biggest stigmas attached to addiction over the previous decades is that it is not a disease. The repeated use of drugs or alcohol is sometimes seen as a choice that those who are weak-willed decide to make. It is much easier to categorize an unfavorable practice by blaming the individual instead of looking at the larger cause of the issue.

Unfortunately, decades of this constant stigma have developed an unconscious bias in many people. Even those with substance use disorder tend to believe that they are weak-minded and are choosing to feed their addiction. This preconceived stigma about addiction has been a big hurdle to getting people with a substance use disorder the quality treatment they need to overcome their condition.\

Fortunately, over recent years, more high-profile individuals have documented their struggles with substance use disorders. The general American public is starting to see that addiction has no bounds. The wealthy, the poor, the famous, the neighbor next door, and so many others are susceptible to addiction. This has led to a much-needed gradual shift in the public’s opinion about substance use disorder and its associated recovery process.

From how it develops to how it is treated, the general public is becoming more open to understanding substance use disorder and addiction. While the stigma attached to addiction and recovery still has negative tones, it is slowly shifting to a more proactive, positive light. As this shift continues to happen, it opens the doors for many individuals with substance use disorder to seek out the treatment they need without feeling as though a shameful eye is watching them.

Addiction Is a Disease

Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) define addiction as a chronic brain disorder. It is not the result of making bad choices or practicing specific behavior. In fact, substance use disorder can happen to anyone.

Drugs and alcohol are known to affect the brain’s communication center and can interfere with how your nerve cells process, receive and even send information. Addiction can actually rewire the structures of the brain to make substance use an uncontrollable habit. It all starts with a simple dopamine release in the brain.

When you first take a drug or drink alcohol, your brain will release a flood of dopamine. Dopamine is your brain’s natural reward. While dopamine can be released when your body does certain activities like exercising or eating your favorite food, the amount of dopamine released when using drugs or alcohol is significantly more than from other activities.

Your brain’s natural reward system will fuel cravings and develop habit loops. For example, if you are a pie fan, you may be salivating when you smell a freshly baked pie. This is your brain fueling cravings so that you eat the pie and naturally release dopamine, the body’s feel-good mechanism.

When it comes to drugs and alcohol, that initial massive surge of dopamine will dramatically affect how your brain reacts in the future. Your brain will naturally try to reduce dopamine production to level back out. This decreased dopamine production will impact all those other activities that are used to bring you pleasure. For example, your brain won’t release much dopamine when you eat a piece of pie or undergo your workout session.

This is how addiction develops. You will start to experience less pleasure from many things that used to bring you happiness. You seek to reuse drugs or alcohol because they are the only things that will give you that shot of much-needed dopamine. Many people with substance use disorder note that they have to take increasing amounts of drugs or alcohol to get back to feeling like their normal selves.

To overcome addiction, the brain needs to be rewired to allow dopamine to be released at normal levels. This way, the individual can experience the pleasures of life without the need for drug or alcohol use. When addiction is fully defined, it becomes clear that it is not the result of bad behavior or poor decision-making. It is a disease that develops in the body after alcohol or drugs are experienced for the first time.

Societal Perception vs. Self-Perception

Many people with substance use disorders do not seek treatment because they fear how society will view their efforts. Traditionally, addiction was linked with negative connotations. Thanks to the release of factual data about addiction, that perception has started to change. This shift in societal perceptions may give those struggling with a substance use disorder the ability to alter their personal perceptions about substance use disorder and recovery.

When you begin to change your perceptions about this chronic disease, others may follow suit and alter their perceptions accordingly. To change society’s perceptions about addiction, those suffering from substance use disorder must alter their own self-perceptions. It is very common for these individuals to associate feelings of guilt, shame, and even pain with their addiction.

Their chronic disease has affected their ability to be honest with themselves. Instead, they may use excuses, lies, and distortions to justify negative behaviors. Dishonestly coupled with negative, self-defeating beliefs are the underlying barriers that formulate distortions in how these individuals view the recovery process.

Changing Self-Perceptions

Perceptions can be changed quickly with the release of factual data. As you are able to view addiction on a much deeper level using facts, research, and statistics, you will create a shift in your preconceived perceptions of substance use disorder and the recovery process. When you start to learn the science behind how drugs and alcohol affect your brain and how they allow you to function in the world around you, it becomes much easier to view the situation as a chronic disease rather than a personal shortcoming. 

When this occurs, those feelings of guilt and shame start to fade away as you realize that your substance use disorder is not the result of being weak or making countless bad decisions. Your brain sets you up to fail. When you lift the weight of shamefulness off of your shoulders, it gives you more clarity to assess the situation and recognize the need for treatment. Just as you would go to the doctor to get treatment for an infection, attending an addiction recovery program is the treatment to overcoming addiction. 

Get Transformative and Compassionate Treatment at Charles River Recovery

As you transform your self-perceptions in regard to substance use disorder, it is likely that you will seek out a compassionate treatment center. Charles River Recovery offers a skillful team with personalized care and evidence-based therapies to help those with all types of substance use disorders overcome their addictions.

Charles River Recovery focuses on those with alcohol, cocaine, prescription pills, opioids, and other drug addictions. We offer inpatient and outpatient programs, depending on your unique needs. We provide a supportive environment where clients can work on evolving their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs to foster a more fulfilling life free of drug and alcohol dependency. Contact Charles River Recovery today to learn how to regain control and start your recovery journey.