How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

how does addiction affect the brain

For decades, science has been slowly learning the mysteries of addiction; both how it forms and how to treat it. The focus of the study remains on the reward system and how does addiction affect the brain. Read on to learn more about this important topic.

What is Addiction?

The Surgeon General states that addiction “ is associated with changes in the function of brain circuits.” Chronic use of a substance, whether it is nicotine, drugs, or alcohol, results in the brain’s reward system being trained to need it. It becomes a sort of push and pull between the desire for pleasure while also avoiding pain.

The reward system and its neurotransmitters slowly adapt to the presence of the substance and reinforce a desire to continue using it. Over time, the person feels compelled to seek and use the substance, despite the harm it may be doing to them. It is when the substance use becomes compulsive that an addiction has developed.

The Difference Between Addiction and Dependence

Some thing the two terms, addiction and dependence, have the same meaning, but they do not. You can become dependent on a substance, such as pain pills after having surgery, without being addicted. Some people, though, who have become dependent on a substance may later become addicted.

Consider the different definitions:

Dependence. Chronic use of a substance, such as the long-term use of an opioid, may result in dependence. This happens through a process caused by increased tolerance, as the body adapts to the presence of the substance. After a while, to be able to achieve the desired effects, the individual must increase the dosage. Physical dependence becomes apparent when the individual experiences unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Addiction. Addiction to a substance is a behavioral disorder and a brain disease. When someone becomes addicted they have a loss of control over the substance, leading to compulsive substance use. This loss of control is the core difference between addiction and dependence.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

Most people are not able to grasp the way addiction can hijack a person’s will. Learning how addiction affects the brain, it helps you see how substances can devastate someone’s life.

As the brain adapts to the substance, the brain changes producing long-term effects and damage. The altered neural pathways can remain altered long after someone has stopped using drugs or alcohol.

In addition to the neural changes made within the brain, alcohol, and drugs also cause brain damage. Addiction can cause:

  • Reduced neuroplasticity.
  • Psychomotor impairment.
  • Decreased gray matter volume.
  • Diminished reflex response.
  • Impaired memory.
  • Reduced respiration and heart rates.
  • Interference with the production of chemical messengers in the brain.

What is the Addiction Cycle?

To better understand addiction, you must know how the cycle of addiction works. Once addiction takes hold, it creates a behavior pattern that is very hard to break out of. The addiction cycle involves:

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  • Substance abuse. Repeated exposure to drugs or alcohol over a length of time sets up the foundation for addiction to take hold.
  • Tolerance. As the brain adapts to the daily presence of the substance, the substance no longer has the desired effect. In response, the person begins to use more of the substance to achieve the prior results.
  • Dependence. Once the body forms dependence on the substance, it leads to withdrawal effects when the substance wears off.
  • Addiction. Some people will go on to develop a psychological addiction to the substance. Their days become focused on obtaining, using, and recovering from the substance.
  • Withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are so unpleasant and painful that the person feels the need to return to the substance for relief.
  • Cravings. Powerful cravings, triggered by the brain’s reward system, can spur the person to seek the substance.
  • Substance seeking. Once the substance has been obtained, the individual returns to substance use, and the cycle repeats.

How to Overcome Addiction

To break the cycle of addiction, it requires a strong desire to make lifelong changes. Patience, commitment, and a strong support network are necessary to sustain recovery.

Even so, without first doing the work to make major changes in thought and behavior patterns, it is not going to work. Reaching your recovery goals takes active engagement through the work of therapy, as well as social and family support.

To be able to successfully rewire the brain toward sobriety, health, and wellness a comprehensive treatment approach is needed. This will include:

Detox and withdrawal. To start the recovery process, you must first go through substance withdrawal. Symptoms will be closely watched and treatments provided to help minimize discomfort.

Psychotherapy. Therapy involves meeting with a counselor to discuss any underlying factors and ongoing behavior challenges. Therapies used include CBT, DBT, and other evidence-based therapies. Through the therapy process, you learn to change the way you process thoughts and triggers.

Group therapy. Peer support is a key treatment element in addiction recovery. These small group sessions with peers can help you process emotions and practice new coping tools.

12-step program. The 12-step program is woven into many treatment programs as a source of social support. The program walks you through the steps toward achieving freedom from the grip of addiction.

Education. Participating in the treatment process involves becoming informed about how addiction affects the brain, and how to avoid relapse. Classes teach new recovery skills to help you cope with triggers like cravings and stress.

Holistic. To add an extra layer of support, you will learn some holistic methods to help manage stress. These might include mindfulness, yoga, art or music therapy, massage, and keeping a journal.

Knowing how does addiction affect the brain and its reward system can act as a deterrent to relapse. If you are battling addiction, reach out for help today.

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