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Overcoming addiction is more real than ever.
February 27, 2017

Overcoming Addiction: With Science & Support, Recovery is More Real than Ever

Overcoming addiction is more real than ever.Overcoming addiction is not easy, but thanks to innovations in science and the supports we now know to be effective for sustaining sobriety, successful recovery can be a reality — as it is today for millions of Americans in this country. What many with diagnosable substance use disorders (SUDs) do not know is how well within reach recovery really is. Many in the ditch of active drug and alcohol addiction doubt whether there is any way out. Many others have already convinced themselves there is no way out: that their problem with drugs or alcohol is beyond repair.

This article will paint a more hope-filled picture, one that is grounded in brain science and actual statistics regarding drug and alcohol recovery in America. The statistics tell an oft-overlooked story about addiction recovery that anyone suffering from substance abuse can benefit from knowing.

Overcoming Addiction – Rates of Relapse and Recovery

Overcoming addiction, whether drugs or alcohol, is more common than today’s headlines would have you believe. News of the opioid epidemic plays to our fears tends to dominate daily coverage. That may be because heartwarming recovery stories do not reel in large audiences to the extent that warnings about the newest drug threat, reports of a growing number of opiate overdose deaths, or laments about the failures of the addiction treatment industry, can. While such phenomena are real and not to be discounted as “fake news,” an overwhelming glut of coverage about them has the effect of eclipsing another reality: that Americans are beating addiction and finding freedom from drugs and alcohol at surprisingly high rates.

Take, for example, the recorded rates of relapse for drugs and alcohol. Addiction is a chronic and complex disease, by the definition of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and other respected sources. But addiction also can be treated and managed successfully through different treatment programs. Via numerous modes of intervention  the relapse rates for people with SUDs are actually lower than relapse rates for people with other chronic diseases. For example, people with hypertension or asthma tend to relapse at a higher rate than people in recovery for addiction, according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The data regarding rates of recovery and the number of Americans who have successfully overcome addiction help reinforce the view that recovery is accessible for many with SUDs. In fact, one in ten adults (10 percent) in the United States have successfully overcome a drug or alcohol problem, according to a poll cited by TIME Magazine.

As further illustration, you might try a little experiment. The next time you are at the gym or grocery store, pick out 10 random people who look over the age of 18. There’s a good probability that at least one of them has beaten an addiction by managing to quit drugs or alcohol.

That is not the only good news where rates of recovery are concerned. The U.S. Surgeon General’s first-ever “Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health,” which came out in November 2016, noted that roughly half of adults who once met the diagnostic criteria for a SUD are currently in “stable remission” (meaning sober one year or longer).

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The Science of Overcoming Addiction – “This is Your Brain … in Recovery”

“This is your brain on drugs,” went the memorable 1980’s TV ad from Partnership for Drug-Free America, accompanied by the footage of an egg (a metaphor for the brain) frying in a skillet (a metaphor for drugs). Advances in science since that time, such as more accurate brain imaging technologies, have revealed what can happen to the inner brain circuitry of drug and alcohol addicts. (And to be sure, the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain, as articulated by NIDA, are significant. Long-term drug use can “severely compromise” the long-term health of the brain, by impairing cognitive function, reducing impulse control, and eroding decision-making abilities.)

But the flip side of this discouraging story is “the brain in recovery.” Contrary to a common misconception that can sometimes dissuade people from getting help for an addiction, the brain can make a stunning recovery from even the most severe of addictions. In other words, the rationale some use to avoid treatment — namely, that the damage from drugs or alcohol has already been done and that recovery won’t reverse it — does not fly. More on this subject as it relates to alcohol recovery and whether you can reverse alcohol’s effects on the brain, can be found in this previous Learning Center article.

Consider, for example, the following evidence from the brain scans of recovering methamphetamine users: these begin to resemble those of healthy persons at just 14 months of abstinence, according to the findings of a 2001 study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience. While such encouraging results pertain exclusively to meth (and cannot be assumed to hold true across the board for other drugs of abuse), they also describe recovery from a drug that is especially dangerous to brain health. Long-term crystal meth use can permanently damage blood vessels in the brain, and can replicate neurological conditions similar to strokes, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s. From this standpoint, the brain in recovery from severe addiction demonstrates an extraordinary capability to heal itself.

Supports for Overcoming Addiction

Overcoming addiction is also more real than ever thanks to various supports we now know are helpful to people in recovery. There are many paths to beating addiction, but one of the more tried-and-true that has been found to work are 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Participation in 12-step programs improves recovery outcomes for alcohol, cocaine and other drugs, and greater levels of participation accord with even more positive outcomes, according to a 2004 article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Benefits include prevention, improved relationships with loved ones, achieving mindfulness, improved coping skills, and creating healthy habits. In addition, learn more about outpatient programs to help smoothly transition into life after rehab and prevent relapse. 

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