Most diseases affect a specific organ or part of the body negatively. Substance use disorders are no different. They are complex diseases that affect the brain.
Addictions are developed slowly over time as the consumed substances begin to take hold of the person’s brain and rewire it. The brain undergoes psychological and physical changes that create urges, changes in behavior and loss of control.
Healing is possible, but first, we need to understand the different effects of addiction on the brain.
What Is Addiction?
Many casual uses of the term “addiction” are not accurate. Someone may say they’re addicted to drinking caffeine or scrolling through social media, but in most cases, these are just things they enjoy.
True addiction to either substances or behaviors is characterized by interference with impulse control, intense cravings and compulsions to use despite any consequences.
The Psychology of Addiction
People use drugs because these substances create psychoactive reactions in the brain that trigger good feelings. Typically, people use illicit drugs to cope with negative emotions, mental health disorders or even physical conditions like chronic pain.
Many people begin using drugs to self-medicate to cope with extreme or unpleasant emotions. The substances allow them to feel relaxed, numb or disassociated from whatever is causing them discomfort or distress.
More than half of people with substance use disorders have also battled mental health conditions at some point in their lives. Common co-occurring mental health diagnoses include anxiety, depression, trauma, extreme stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How Drug Addiction Impacts the Brain
Every substance has a different psychoactive effect on your brain, but all of them create physical addiction in the same way — by activating feel-good receptors and actually altering your brain’s chemistry and structure.
Illicit substances trigger an intense flood of a reward chemical called dopamine. This flood of dopamine tells your brain the drug use was a positive experience that should be repeated. Substance use also triggers glutamate, a chemical related to memory formation that contributes to the triggers and compulsions of substance use disorders.
Over time, the intense floods of dopamine begin rewiring and overloading your brain’s rewards circuit. These dopamine floods are up to 10 times more intense than what your brain is used to. Your brain responds to the overload by dulling your dopamine receptors, reducing the number of them and producing less dopamine.
When your brain restructures like this, you start requiring larger amounts of substances to reproduce the feelings you used to get.
Begin Healing at GreeneStone Recovery Centre
Understanding how substance use disorders affect the brain is an important part of healing or helping our loved ones recover. When we understand the physical and psychological changes a person with an addiction undergoes, we can help remove the stigma and clear the way for better treatment and recovery.
Recovery is a process, but with treatment and time, our brains begin to return to the way they were prior to substance use and process dopamine in normal quantities.