For people that have never battled addiction, it’s difficult to comprehend that it’s actually a disease of the brain. Clinically, addiction is referred to as a substance use disorder. But, physically, it hijacks the brain and alters its chemical processes.
This is what makes addiction so difficult to overcome. It’s more than the sum of a person’s poor life choices and uncharacteristic behavior. These are side-effects of what addiction does to the brain.
Looking to further understand addiction and the brain? This is the blog for you.
Addiction and the Brain: The Science Behind it All
One of the most common misconceptions is that addiction is about a lack of self-control. It’s perceived as a moral issue or a choice. But science says otherwise. While a lack of self-control and poor moral choices are common among addicts, these are just symptoms of addiction — not what causes it.
Addiction is a complex disease because of how it physically alters the brain on many different levels. Substances such as alcohol, nicotine, opioids, and stimulants are comprised of compounds that alter the chemistry of the brain. And as a result, our actions.
When the brain is exposed to these compounds on a regular basis, it affects the reward center of the brain. This leads to a loss of control, cravings, and eventual substance abuse.
The Brain’s Reward Impulse
Feeling good is an addictive feeling in itself. Whether it’s from achieving a good grade on a test, sexual pleasure, eating certain foods, or ingesting certain substances. The reward center of the brain works the same way for everyone.
The effects of a substance, such as opioids, for example, provide a sense of euphoria. The substance enters the bloodstream and immediately stimulates the brain’s reward system, making you feel on top of the world. The more you use a substance, the more your brain craves the intense stimulation.
Understanding the Biochemistry
So, what exactly powers this reward system in the brain? Chemicals, also known as hormones. Addiction develops over time based on a number of factors such as the type of substance, the frequency, and the duration of use.
But the key mechanism behind it all is the chemical change that takes place in the brain during this time.
Many addictive substances have a psychoactive effect on the brain. This has a lasting effect on our pleasure and motivation responses. But it’s the release of dopamine that spurs on these feelings. A large release of dopamine is what causes a number of physical symptoms such as pleasure and euphoria. But also, paranoia, hallucinations, and a rapid heart rate.
The more you abuse a substance, the more your brain releases this hormone, and the more you begin to crave the side effects of dopamine. And so the cycle continues into addiction.
The Spiral into Addiction
The brain is responsible for almost every single process that takes place inside the human body. But it’s also sensitive and easily influenced. It’s our only major organ that dictates physical sensations such as moods, emotions, habits, and impulses. But even this fine balance is susceptible to change, thanks to harmful, addictive substances.
When you abuse drugs, alcohol, or nicotine, these important functions of the brain become deeply impaired. The spiral into addiction hinges on the brain’s limbic system and the release of feel-good emotions. This constant cycle of feeling ”on a high” motivates an individual to continually pursue this feeling. Eventually, the brain begins to reward itself and becomes reliant on dopamine to function.
This is what causes the downward spiral into addiction — the pursuit of the next euphoric feeling, as dictated by the limbic system. Eventually, an individual reaches a threshold where substance abuse is no longer about the ”high” any longer. But rather, it becomes about feeding an addiction in order to feel ”normal”.
The Brain and Withdrawal
The irony about addiction is the fact that it’s all based on a reward system. When in reality, there is nothing rewarding about battling addiction. Addiction develops due to a major change in the brain’s biochemistry — it has nothing to do with willpower.
Addiction also centers on a constant loop of highs and lows — a cycle of reward and desperation without the addictive substance. During an addiction, your brain becomes hardwired to receive a constant flood of those chemical compounds. And it adapts to the mental effects of a substance.
When you stop flooding the brain with these compounds, this is where withdrawal comes in. An individual may experience harsh mental, physical, and emotional side effects. Some common symptoms of withdrawal include intense cravings, anxiety, depression, sweating, and more.
In essence, your brain which has become hardwired to react in a certain way, over an extended period of time, goes into shock. It then has no choice but to reduce its production of chemical messengers, i.e. dopamine. The end result is a barrage of physical, mental, and emotional side-effects.
Cognitive Therapy for Addiction
While detoxing your body is a huge and important part of recovery, the real work lies in correcting the function of the brain. Most of the time, both inpatient and outpatient recovery centers offer an array of cognitive therapies for addiction. Some of the most popular and effective therapies include:
This is a common therapy used to soothe and stabilize the brain after withdrawal and a number of years of addiction. In short, a biofeedback therapist monitors the brain in order to better understand brain activity. The end goal is to help them understand the effects of addiction on the brain and any unhealthy impulses a person might have.
Biofeedback hinges on the use of electroencephalogram, or EEG technology. With electric sensors place on the skin, a therapist can help to reduce stress and involuntary functions. All while monitoring the brain, too. Biofeedback also includes meditation, muscle relaxation, and guided imagery as part of the therapy.
Also known as EEQ therapy, this is another form of biofeedback. It centers on training the brain in order to improve how it functions. It also monitors brain activity in terms of how addiction has altered neural pathways.
The point of neurofeedback is to reduce instances of anxiety and stress, in order to get a handle on addictive compulsions. The end goal of both biofeedback and neurofeedback is to teach the brain how to re-reward itself in a healthy way and recover its function.
Get Your Life and Mental Health Back on Track
As you can see, addiction and the brain are both intricately linked. If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction and need professional help, then Sober Life Recovery Solutions is here to offer just that.
As one of San Diego’s premier in-network recovery providers, we offer a robust clinical program, backed by science-based practices and a team of supportive staff. Learn more about what our addiction recovery entails.