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Addicted Brain: Understanding the Insanity

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

Many people with addictions can identify with the above quote. They abuse drugs or alcohol hoping to recreate an earlier high, make themselves feel normal, or solve other problems. Instead, they find that their situation is just the same, or even worse. Even so, they turn back to substance abuse again and again. Why do we keep repeating a cycle that always ends poorly? The science of an addicted brain reveals why “simply stopping” isn’t an option.

The Addicted Brain

Addiction is a treatable chronic brain disorder. This means a person with a chemical dependency (addiction) has abnormal brain functions. The brain’s neurotransmitters and receptors regulate and coordinate everything you feel, think, or do. Part of the way they do this is by signaling the release of dopamine to the brain. Dopamine is responsible for motivating someone to do something. When released, a person feels happy, even euphoric, and associates that action as a positive act.

In the addicted brain, one or more neurotransmitter pathways are damaged, leaving it unable to release dopamine. The damage can be caused by several things, but the main one is drug or alcohol abuse. People with dysregulated neurotransmitters often feel fear, remorse, anger, and guilt, and are generally agitated. However, when drugs or alcohol are introduced into the system, they feel not normal, but amazing. The substance increases the amount of dopamine released, usually to a far greater degree than normal activities in a normal brain. On drugs or alcohol, they feel better than if they were sober.

People with an addicted brain feel fantastic when they are high. But as soon as the chemical leaves the system, they feel worse than they did before. These swings from high highs and low lows disrupt the brain even further, creating a tolerance for the addicted substance. As a result, those with addictions use more of the substances or combine them with other substances. As the addiction worsens, the person beings to use drugs or alcohol not to feel normal, but to not feel terrible. Meanwhile, the brain continues to deteriorate. At some point, the part of the brain that reasons and uses logic turns off. The addicted person is acting solely out of the instinct to not feel terrible. Which means even more substance abuse.

Why do addicts keep repeating a cycle that always ends poorly? Because neurotransmitters and other parts of the addicted brain are unable to do anything else. They can no longer understand what’s going on. It becomes natural for them to use. Simply stopping the use of drugs or alcohol won’t heal the addicted brain, and relapse will happen.

Getting medical help for an addiction is essential for a successful and sustainable recovery. Trained addiction professionals do more than help someone get through a physical withdrawal. They address the emotional needs of a dysregulated brain through therapy and teach an individual how to deal with stress and anxiety. They create a sense of self-worth through fostering spirituality. Addiction is a life-long battle. But with the help of professionals, a person can experience a fulfilling life.

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