Nobody deliberately starts drinking or using drugs intending to develop an addiction, but many people get caught in the vicious cycle. Understanding how intoxicating substances impact the brain explains why some people continue to misuse alcohol and drugs despite a cascade of adverse life effects.
The Brain’s Role in Addiction
Substance abuse disorders develop because drugs, alcohol and other intoxicants jump-start the production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which stimulates the brain’s reward center in the prefrontal cortex. The dopamine rush leads to pleasurable feelings, creating an unconscious association between drug and alcohol use and satisfying experiences. Once that connection forms, it becomes reflexive.
While dopamine sparks the initial motivation in continuing to drink or abuse mood-altering substances, addiction develops into a persistent problem when it hijacks a user’s brain. With repeated use, it takes increasingly higher doses to achieve the same euphoric effects. At this point, a heightened tolerance can lead to a dependency and a worsening addiction.
Why People With Substance Misuse Disorders Can’t “Just Say No”
Early misunderstandings about addiction characterized it as a weakness or moral flaw – a stigma that unfortunately persists to this day. That mindset led to the idea that addiction treatment should take a punitive approach to encourage people to break self-destructive habits.
Since then, our knowledge of addiction has evolved. Today, we take a more enlightened, evidence-based view that recognizes addiction as a chronic disease. Just as cardiovascular disease affects the heart and diabetes damages the pancreas, addiction takes over the brain. Successfully treating substance abuse disorders requires identifying the root cause of the addictive behavior through psychotherapy, then replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms with constructive ones.
The prefrontal cortex is one of the critical parts of your brain affected by substance use. Among the responsibilities this area regulates are thinking, decision-making abilities and impulse control. A worsening addiction can cause you to compulsively seek your substance of use, which makes it progressively harder for you to walk away on your own.
Brain Plasticity in Addiction Recovery
The idea that addiction exerts a powerful, lasting influence on your brain can be frightening. Fortunately, your brain is innately capable of healing itself from the cumulative damage associated with years of substance abuse. Known as neuroplasticity, this ability is the reason you can learn new skills throughout your life.
Learning-based interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy have become one of the most reliable tools for healing from addiction recovery. By helping you change your habits and reframe your internal monologue from negative to positive language, a counselor with training in this approach can guide you to modify your behavior for long-term benefits. Through CBT, you can recognize situational stressors and adapt accordingly.
Form Habits That Promote Long-Term Recovery
In many aspects of your life, pursuing sobriety will require you to start from scratch. Many people find a sober living community provides them with the best chances of recovering in an environment that allows them to focus fully on their goals. The much-needed structure and support you need to smoothly transition out of inpatient treatment and into the “real world” are here for you at Segue Recovery Support. Contact us today to learn more.