Medical treatment and 12-step groups have been the traditional routes to recovery for people addicted to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. But new approaches toward substance abuse suggest that breaking the cycle of addiction might be too complex for science to handle.
Some scientists are testing to see if addiction can be fought with anti-stress pills, Melinda Wenner reports for the Scientific American. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and University College London administered a stress-reduction drug to highly anxious recovering alcoholics, which reduced their craving for a drink, especially in times of high stress. The study is inconclusive in determining whether stress medication could help alcoholics long-term, but represents another step forward in efforts to treat addiction with pharmaceuticals.
On a cultural scale, public health officials are looking to health advisories as a way to stem the tide of addiction. Science Daily reports that excessive drinking can lead to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome—a combination of disorders including heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. One study, published by the Centers for Disease Control, suggests that emphasizing the heart disease link could discourage people from drinking excessively.
Others have looked to “do-it-yourself” cures as a way out of addiction without the professional help. According to another article in the Scientific American, eminent social psychologist Stanley Schachter sparked controversy in 1982 when he concluded that addicts who successfully broke their habits without professional treatment or self-help groups were just as likely to recover as those who sought professional treatment.
One of Schachter’s explanations for his findings was that these “D.I.Y” recoveries were more effective than those who sought outside help, because the first group’s dependencies were not as severe as the latter’s. Schachter also concluded that many of these former addicts were able to resume moderate use of alcohol and drugs without abusing them.
The study antagonized treatment professionals who adhere to a disease model of addiction—where nothing short of total abstinence constitutes recovery—as well as researchers who questioned his methods. Skeptics were quick to point out that definitions vary for concepts such as addiction, treatment, and recovery, and affected the possible interpretations of studies like Schachter’s.
The controversy echoes the prevailing belief among addicts and recovery experts that addiction manifests in different ways among different people, and no two people’s addictions are identical. Though science can help combat substance abuse, the elusive and nebulous nature of chemical dependency—its complex emotional, psychological, and physiological ramifications—suggests that the plight of some addicts might always lie just out of science’s reach.