Many people associate addiction with substance use, physical deterioration, reckless behavior, and criminal activity. But addiction is a relapsing disorder that begins in the brain.
Most people agree that addiction is a disease. While people associate other diseases with the part of the body the condition affects, addiction isn’t always so obvious. Heart disease harms the heart. Liver cancer destroys the liver. Kidney disease damages the kidney. Behavioral health experts know that addiction hijacks the brain. That’s why we refer to addiction as a brain disease.
Addiction Begins In The Brain
Many people associate addiction with substance use, physical deterioration, reckless behavior, and criminal activity. But addiction is a relapsing disorder that begins in the brain. The brain registers all types of pleasure the same way, whether that gratification comes from drugs, money, sex, or food. The moment the brain processes pleasure, it releases dopamine, a chemical that helps regulate your mood, motivation, and ability to focus. Dopamine also plays a significant role in learning and memory. When you use addictive substances like drugs, an intense surge of dopamine floods the brain, which picks up on this pattern quickly.
This excess amount of dopamine enters the brain and instantly starts to change the way your mind works. The addictive substance is now identified as a source of pleasure, but that’s not all. The influx of dopamine causes the brain to memorize and learn what substance evoked the greatest amount of pleasure. The excess amount of dopamine then begins to interfere with glutamate, another brain chemical. Together, they take over the brain’s reward system and associate survival with pleasure and reward. At this point, addiction tricks the brain into thinking that it needs large amounts of pleasure-creating substances to survive. Experts believe this twisted chemical process may be responsible for addictive behavior. But addiction doesn’t just originate in the brain, it harms the brain, as well.
How Addiction Affects The Brain
The brain is the most dynamic and complex organ in your body. When your brain functions well, you can make healthy decisions and manage your emotions appropriately. The brain also has a good amount of plasticity, which helps it adjust to and learn new patterns as well as rewire itself. But addiction hijacks the brain and uses the organ’s plasticity against itself. Instead of restructuring the brain’s patterns for good, addiction causes the brain to rewire itself in an impaired way, which creates unhealthy behavior patterns. The damage can happen in many ways, which may include:
- Desensitization of the brain’s reward circuit. When this happens, your brain stops experiencing pleasure from everyday activities. Relationships, good music, or delicious food no longer trigger your brain’s reward system. As your brain becomes even more desensitized, your tolerance for drug use increases. This can also encourage habit-forming behavior like an addiction to gambling, food, sex, internet browsing, shopping, and video game use.
- Increased strength and intensity of conditioned responses, such as how you react to stress. Addiction changes the way your mind responds to stress. Instead of responding to difficult situations in a healthy way, addiction actually heightens the stress you feel in tough circumstances. This, in turn, produces a stronger craving for alcohol and other drugs. If you don’t satisfy that craving, addiction may train your brain to trigger negative emotional responses.
- Weakened regions of the brain involved in decision-making, impulse control, and self-regulation. If you have trouble making healthy decisions, difficulty managing your impulses, and find it hard to regulate your behavior, you’re much more likely to continue addictive patterns. If you do stop misusing substances, the weakened parts of your brain may increase your chances of relapse.
Portions Of The Brain Impacted By Addiction
Some specific brain areas affected by addiction include:
- The Basal ganglia, which plays an important role in positive motivation and the formation of habits and routines. The more you use drugs, the more the basal ganglia adapts to them. Eventually, this area of the brain identifies the drug or alcohol as a primary source of motivation, which helps to create the habit of substance use.
- The Extended amygdala, which helps regulate stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and uneasiness. Misusing substances makes this part of your brain extremely sensitive. But being in a constant state of stress, anxiety, anger, and discomfort is draining and depressing. To help ease these feelings, your brain turns to pleasure. But using substances causes your basal ganglia to identify drugs or alcohol as a primary source of joy. Essentially, addiction hijacks the amygdala and promotes drug cravings and continued substance use as a source of stress relief, rather than exercise or positive relationships.
- The Prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for your ability to plan, think, solve problems, make decisions, and exhibit self-control. This is the last part of the brain to mature so teenagers struggling with addiction challenges are especially vulnerable to this kind of harm.
Drugs like opioids can also disrupt the brain stem which controls everyday functions like your heart rate and regulates how well you breathe and sleep.
Addiction Is A Brain Disorder
More often than not, people view addiction as a behavioral problem. But in 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) redefined addiction as a brain disorder. Substance use challenges can certainly lead to troubling and criminal behavior, but that’s a result of the brain’s weakened prefrontal cortex. So in reality, addiction is centered around the brain and its weaknesses.
Dr. Michael Miller explains it this way: “At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or moral problem or criminal problem. It’s a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas. Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”
Treating Addiction and Restoring Brain Health
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we combine the best of what brain science and clinical support have to offer. We work hard to help restore your brain to its optimal health. We also incorporate exercise, nutrition, and evidence-based therapy into all of our addiction treatment programs to make sure you receive the comprehensive and holistic support you need. Contact us today at 928-583-7799 if you or a loved one are struggling with substance use challenges.
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.