How Addiction Affects the Brain

depiction of brain affected by addiction

Once a substance use disorder develops, it becomes an illness like cancer or any other disease. Addiction, in effect, takes over the brain. Why does understanding this help those with a substance use disorder to reach out for help in the form of addiction treatment? How can an understanding of the mechanics of substance use disorders help destigmatize addiction? Where can you go for help if you have a substance use disorder?

Addiction and Your Brain

One of the most powerful chemicals released into the body from the brain is the pleasure-producing chemical dopamine. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that, while the brain is not fully understood, the body is hardwired to feel pleasure when dopamine is released. Dopamine produces feelings of general well-being, pleasure and happiness. Normally, these feelings are naturally restricted by the complex circuitry in the physical and chemical components that make up the brain.

However, when certain drugs are taken, they cause unrestricted dopamine to be released in surges that are much higher than the normal doses that come from doing things you like, such as eating chocolate, exercising or having social interactions. As more dopamine is released, the brain rewires itself to crave more of the substance. As NIDA describes:

“Just as drugs produce intense euphoria, they also produce much larger surges of dopamine, powerfully reinforcing the connection between consumption of the drug, the resulting pleasure, and all the external cues linked to the experience. Large surges of dopamine “teach” the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.”

A doctor consoling a patient

As addiction takes over your brain, it begins to require more of the drug to get the same pleasurable feeling. Normal activities are set aside in a quest to recreate the drug-induced feeling of pleasure. Over time, normal activities will not suffice; only the drug will provide the high. NIDA notes that the person who misuses drugs eventually feels flat, without motivation, lifeless or depressed. What normally causes pleasure just does not compare to the feeling of the drug.

This is how drugs change your biology and why a substance use disorder is officially classed as a brain disease and not a fault of character or a mere lack of willpower. The Republic reported that these changes are both behavioral and physical, stating:

“There are identifiable changes in the brain of someone dealing with addiction, the same way there are changes with someone who had Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.”

Getting Help For a Substance Use Disorder

More than 2.6 million Americans experience a substance use disorder involving opioids, a class of addictive drugs. Why it is that one person that takes prescription pain medications can go back to his or her normal life and another person becomes addicted is not entirely understand. However, there seems to be a genetic predisposition to a substance use disorder.

Washington State addiction treatment resources are designed specifically to help people with a substance use disorder. To learn more about treatment options, contact The Recovery Village Ridgefield today.

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