Addiction is complex. It has many causes and elements. It is a mixture of behavioral psychology and brain chemistry. This is part of the reason that addiction, and addicts, are so stigmatized by society. When people do not fully understand addiction, they are either frightened by the implications or believe it to be a choice that someone has control over. In fact, there are a lot of conflicting opinions surrounding what addiction really is; is it a behavioral problem, a medical condition, a mental health issue, or something else? Many of the answers to these questions can be found by looking at the brain of an addict.
How Our Understanding of Addiction has Changed
By understanding what is going on inside the brain of an addict, we can all understand addiction better. A hundred years ago, addiction was viewed as a weakness. It was seen as a moral problem, something ‘bad’ that people ‘gave in to’ through their own weakness of character or will. To treat or ‘cure’ addiction, it was believed that people should be punished.
Thankfully, we have learned a lot in the last hundred years! We now know that addiction is a disease that affects the brain, not a choice. It is certainly not a moral issue. Scientists have been studying the brain and document how addiction changes the way it functions. The brain of an addict looks different and works differently from the brain of a non-addict. However, this does not mean overcoming addiction is not possible. In fact, knowing how it affects the brain can be one of the most empowering tools that an addict has when they embark on the journey of recovery.
You might think of drug addiction or alcoholism when you think of addiction, but the changes in the brain that characterize addiction to substances can also occur in those with compulsive desires to do certain things. Some behaviors, such as shopping, gambling, eating, and sex, can have a similar effect on the brain as addictive substances.
What is Happening in the Brain of an Addict?
Whenever we do something rewarding – for example, eat a satisfying meal, have sex, or reach a goal at work or school – we get a sense of pleasure. The ‘feel-good’ factor makes us want to repeat the experience. Inside the brain, certain neurotransmitters are released, and the most important one in understanding addiction is dopamine. The part of the brain that releases dopamine is known as the pleasure center. When dopamine is released, we feel good. Why does the brain work this way? Well, pleasure makes us want to repeat the activity that caused it. So, we are motivated to eat satisfying meals, to reproduce, or to strive towards goals. This plays a vital role in the survival of the species, and it happens in all of our brains, not just the brain of an addict.
When a person uses a substance that contributes to this rush of dopamine – let’s take the example of a recreational drug – they experience an intense sense of happiness, pleasure, or euphoria. The levels of dopamine that result from some drugs are much higher than what we would experience from a normal ‘reward’ situation. The desire to repeat the experience can be intense, and this quick-fix of dopamine becomes ingrained in the memory so that the person craves the substance more and more.
How Addiction Grows
In time, the brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine, so that it requires more dopamine in order to feel the same sense of reward. This is how addiction forms. The most addictive drugs are those that quickly deliver intense dopamine surges. The system that has evolved to ensure that we learn to repeat positive activities to thrive becomes overwhelmed. The brain of an addict becomes accustomed to being overloaded with dopamine. The desire for the quick-hit of intense spikes of dopamine is powerful and often powerful enough to overrule the person’s so-called ‘better judgment.’
When the brain is regularly exposed to these higher levels of dopamine, it tries to regulate. Dopamine receptors in the brain might be ‘switched off, or less dopamine is produced. This results in the addict gaining less pleasure from the addictive substance. The obvious solution for many addicts is to use more of the substance. So the addict finds themselves having to take more of the drug, or drink more of the alcohol, to get the feeling they crave. They feel completely compelled to seek out that same sense of pleasure they once had from the substance, even if this means using more of it.
When Does Something Become an Addiction?
Addiction is when a person craves the substance, often loses control over how they use it and continues to use it even though it causes harm. This means that they may seek out the substance even when they know it is causing them harm by putting them in danger, jeopardizing their work-life, destroying relationships, or damaging their health. This is one of the most difficult things for a non-addict to understand, but knowing what is going on in the brain of an addict certainly helps. When an addict has got to the stage where they feel they cannot control their use of a substance, even though they can see the detrimental effects it is having, their brain is no longer functioning healthily.
When you understand what is happening within the brain of an addict, you begin to understand why it is important that the recovery process involves a number of different approaches. The psychological benefit of talking therapy, group therapy, and peer support is essential, but so is the medicinal support recommended by the person’s medical team. Medicine can help with the withdrawal process and support the brain chemistry as the source of the dopamine surges is no longer available. The process of recovery may be long and difficult, but as many recovered addicts can testify, you can be free from addiction, and the brain can adapt and relearn more healthy patterns.