How Addiction Changes the Brain

The brain is a vital organ in the human body that controls how we function. It determines how we move, walk, talk, and think. The brain adapts to environmental changes and allows us to cope with negative emotions, form new memories, and learn. When left untreated, a person who suffers from depression, anxiety, or stress might turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. This puts them at high risk for addiction, which can lead to risky behavior, serious health complications, organ failure, overdose, and early death.

Understanding Addiction

Addiction is a complex disease that chemically and physiologically changes the brain, making it extremely hard for a person to quit using drugs or alcohol. These substances affect the brain’s neurotransmitter, dopamine, which invokes a temporary burst of pleasurable feelings and euphoria. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, How Addiction Hijacks the Brain (2011), “Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure but also plays a role in learning and memory — two key elements in the transition from liking something to becoming addicted to it.”

When a person suffers from addiction, they might feel emotional or physical distress whenever they are not taking the substance. Withdrawal symptoms can become hard to tolerate. As a substance use disorder deepens in intensity, using drugs or alcohol is the only thing that produces relief from the bad feelings associated with withdrawal.

Addiction is similar to other chronic diseases because it is preventable, treatable, it changes biology, and if left untreated, it can last a lifetime. A person struggling with addiction will develop a tolerance and seek more drugs or alcohol to achieve the same euphoric feeling as the first time they drank or used. Eventually, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the release of more dopamine to feel the same pleasure. This leads a person to use more drugs and alcohol more frequently or turn to substances with a higher potency.

Health Risks Caused by Addiction

The brain adapts to substance use and changes with addiction. According to Dr. George Koob, director of the NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2015), “The brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.” If drug or alcohol use continues, the changes become more permanent.

Drugs and alcohol impact major organ function and can lead to heart disease, liver failure, some types of cancer, kidney failure, overdose, and death. Drugs and alcohol affect the brain’s ability to form and store essential memories, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. This means missing significant and meaningful dates and events with loved ones.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Some people do not realize they are physically dependent on drugs or alcohol until they try to quit using them and experience unbearable withdrawal symptoms. The uncomfortable and sometimes painful withdrawals are a response to the brain needing more of the drug or alcohol to function. Withdrawal symptoms make the brain crave more of the drug to feel “normal” again.

Risk Factors of Addiction

Addiction does not discriminate and can happen to anyone. While there are no specific reasons why one person becomes addicted, and another does not, some factors can put a person at higher risk of developing an addiction. Risk factors may include:

  • The age when use begins
  • Genetic makeup and other individual biological factors
  • Psychological factors related to a person’s unique history and personality
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
  • Environmental factors, such as the availability of drugs and family and peer dynamics
  • Financial resources, cultural norms, exposure to stress, and access to social support

Specific combinations of factors can drive the emergence and continuation of substance misuse and the progression to a disorder or an addiction (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services).

Mental Health and Addiction

Some who struggle with addiction also suffer from an underlying mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, PTSD, ADHD, or schizophrenia. Those who live with a mental health condition might turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. The drugs or alcohol can heighten the symptoms of some mental health disorders, resulting in continued drug or alcohol use in a seemingly never-ending continuous cycle. For the best success in recovery, treatment for mental health and addiction must be addressed simultaneously.

Recovery is Possible

When struggling with substance use, the idea of recovery may seem impossible. However, your brain can learn how to function without having to use drugs or alcohol. When pursuing sobriety and throughout recovery, be patient. It will take some time for your brain to be re-trained to function normally without controlling unhealthy substances. Addiction is isolating, but you are not alone. Every day, people get help for addiction and live a happy, meaningful life in recovery.

Our brain is the center of activity in our bodies. When you use substances, brain changes occur that change your behavior. Substance use is now your top priority. You may do anything just to feel the same high you did the first time you used. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that cannot be cured but can be managed with the right treatment. Recovery is possible. You no longer have to suffer from the binds of addiction and can live a happy, fulfilling life. Sometimes, the stigma of addiction and psychiatric disorders prevents people from getting the help they desperately need. At Achieve Concierge, we tailor treatment to your unique needs. We offer same-day appointments with our caring and welcoming staff and can do house calls if necessary. Take the first step to a fulfilling life in recovery. Get help and start your journey to recovery today by calling Achieve Concierge at (619) 393-5871.

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