Substance use disorders are hugely complicated conditions that scientists are uncovering more about by the day. In the last few decades, technology has allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of how addiction affects the brain. If you’re struggling to control alcohol or drug abuse, one of the most important aspects of recovery is becoming an expert on addiction itself.
Understanding the effects of addiction and the processes that control your intense cravings for substances is a key step towards gaining control. At Recovery Works, we empower you so that you’re able to build the defenses necessary to remain sober long term.
What Is Addiction?
Addiction is defined as the sustained habitual use of psychoactive substances despite significant negative outcomes and repeated efforts to stop. In the past, substance abuse was seen as a defect in decision-making that some people weren’t strong enough to overcome.
Thankfully, experts have completely rejected that cruel, old-fashioned point of view, and we now understand substance use disorders as mental health conditions that require professional treatment. One of the most fundamental aspects of any animal’s brain, including humans, is the reward system. This system motivates us to find food, water, love and warmth — but substances and certain behaviours can hijack this survival instinct and turn it around on us.
When this happens, the substance or behaviour in question becomes as important in the mind’s eye as water or food. Your brain becomes fixated on procuring and using the addictive drugs in question under the illusion that they’re an essential part of your survival. Even if your logical, conscious mind understands that they’re not, your subconscious is convinced that they are. The more substances a person takes, the stronger their hold on that individual becomes.
The Science of Addiction
Let’s get into the science of addiction and explore exactly how drug and alcohol use affects brain function.
The Brain’s Reward System
The brain’s reward circuit is one of the deepest, most evolved parts of our mind, and it’s vital for our survival. Thousands of years ago, before our society evolved into the incredibly connected network of systems it is today, people had to hunt and gather to survive. Staying alive was the main challenge for our ancestors, and the reward center in our brains drove us to pursue anything that aided our existence with relentless persistence.
Put simply, when you drink water or eat food, your brain sends chemical messengers to your brain that signal for you to repeat this activity. In fact, even when you’re engaged in the process of seeking out food and water, your brain sends messages to say you’re doing something great and you should do it again.
It’s simple positive reinforcement, but it’s an extraordinary way for us to remember actions or behaviour that provide pleasure or relief so that we stay alive. Unfortunately, not everything that provides us with pleasure and relief actually benefits our bodies. As such, when you take drugs or use alcohol and get relief or pleasure, your brain automatically responds by reinforcing the behaviour.
Then Why Doesn’t Addiction Happen to Everyone?
This is the part that baffled scientists for a long time, but it’s now becoming clear. Genetics, environment and society affect each individual in unique ways so that no two people are exactly alike. Addiction is a chronic disease, just like diabetes or heart disease, and it requires ongoing treatment
Some individuals have genes that mean they’re predisposed to substance use disorders. However, there are many of these genes, and this alone isn’t enough to dictate that someone will become addicted. In addition to these genetic factors, there are also social and environmental triggers that cause someone to habitually use drugs.
Furthermore — and perhaps most importantly — people who abuse addictive substances tend to have trouble self-regulating. This isn’t their fault, and it applies to more than just drugs and alcohol. It generally stems from a difficulty that individual has with regulating their emotions. This could be related to the prefrontal cortex, which we’ll discuss in more detail later on.
It’s important to note that people don’t just use drugs and alcohol to cover up pain. They might use them to celebrate victories or unwind after a hard day. Either way, if they have the right mix of genetic traits and lived experiences, the sustained pursuit of chemical rewards instead of natural rewards is likely to lead to addiction for these individuals.
Neurotransmitters and Substance Use Disorders
Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that send messages between neurons in the brain and nerve cell receptors in the rest of the body. The main one that tells the brain to repeat pleasurable experiences is called dopamine. This neurotransmitter has a host of functions, including:
- Motor control
- Prolactin production
Dopamine is the substance that’s responsible for telling your brain to repeat pleasurable activities such as eating, drinking, sex and substance use. It’s also released during the pursuit of these activities, which is why people become just as obsessive over making sure they have enough drugs as they do with using them. This is also why people can develop addictive behavior with regards to activities that cause a release of these chemicals.
Which Part of the Brain Is Responsible for Addictive Behavior?
The brain is the most complicated machine in existence, and part of its extraordinary complexity is how interconnected it all is. There isn’t one part of the brain that causes addiction; it happens as a result of the way all areas of the brain interact and communicate.
Some people’s brains are wired in a way that predisposes them to addiction, while others are set up in a way that makes it much less likely. Although there’s a lot more to it, there are two main areas that science has connected with substance use disorders: the prefrontal lobe and the limbic system.
The Prefrontal Cortex
One of the main things that separates the human brain structure from other animals is our enormous prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for the conscious mind, which directly regulates our behavior. Whereas animals are primarily driven by instinct, our instincts are offset by the prefrontal cortex, which gives us the ability for self-control.
However, for people who struggle with impulse control, harnessing the power of this part of the brain involves practice. Plus, if the emotional centers in a person’s brain are hyperactive, it can be incredibly difficult to override them with the logical mind without professional guidance. Factors such as adverse childhood experiences, adult trauma, certain mental disorders and brain disease can contribute to an underactive frontal lobe.
The Limbic System
Another part of the brain that plays a key role in the development of problem alcohol or drug use is the limbic system. Substances also cause brain changes within these areas, which can make preexisting mental health conditions worse and even cause problems that weren’t there before.
- Hypothalamus: This part of the brain is responsible for keeping your body in homeostasis. As such, it regulates thirst, hunger, response to pain, sexual satisfaction and aggressive behavior. Furthermore, it regulates the autonomic nervous system, which keeps your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and emotional arousal regular.
- Hippocampus: The hippocampus turns events into long-term memories.
- Amygdala: The amygdala is thought to have a strong correlation with addictive behavior. It’s one of the oldest parts of the brain, and it generates feelings of fear, anxiety and desire. When the amygdala lights up during imaging studies, it triggers the fight-or-flight response to send out neurotransmitters and hormones that prepare your body to run away or attack.
Drugs and the Nervous System
There’s even more to addiction than what’s held within the brain, it affects your entire body. The nervous system is composed of two parts, the CNS and the autonomic nervous system. Different drugs have distinct effects on the brain, and they largely fall into two main categories: depressants and stimulants.
Depressants such as opioids, alcohol and benzodiazepines artificially activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system that’s responsible for the rest and digest response to stimuli and includes sleep and feelings of calm. People who struggle with anxiety or insomnia and those with excessive stress can find solace in the comfort these drugs provide.
On the other hand, stimulants such as methamphetamine, cocaine, nicotine and caffeine activate the sympathetic nervous system and trigger the fight-or-flight response. This increases the heart rate and blood pressure and causes digestive slowdown to prepare you for taking action. People who use these substances feel enhanced confidence, arousal and euphoria, which can help them cope with social situations, party longer and harder and escape reality.
The more you depend on substances to perform these functions, the harder it becomes for your body to regulate itself naturally. As such, people who already struggled to self-regulate end up with even more trouble.
Get Help for Alcohol or Drug Addiction
If a substance use disorder has taken hold of your life, you don’t need to suffer alone. The team at our Victoria rehab center is dedicated to helping people win their battles with addiction and stay sober long term using the 12 steps and behavioural therapy. Call today at 778-430-12127 to find out more about residential addiction treatment here with us.