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The Science of Addiction: The Link Between Your Brain and Substance Abuse

Your brain is swimming in chemicals. They are necessary, even critically important, for your brain and body to function properly.

Yet, what happens if you become stuck in substance abuse?

What happens to your brain then when you introduce new chemicals, especially powerful ones, into this chemical mix?

It turns out that the critical chemical makeup of your brain changes. That finely tuned balance winds up being flushed away, replaced by a single and domineering chemical. And that inevitably leads to addiction.

Let’s take a closer look at the science behind addiction.

When Your Brain Is in Tune

First, let’s consider what your brain looks like when everything is in tune chemically.

Your brain makes several chemicals naturally, which include:

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • Glutamate
  • Endorphins

These and other chemicals serve a very important purpose. They help neurotransmitters in the brain to send and receive information. And these signals tell the brain what to do.

For example, if you are eating your favorite food, endorphins are released. They help the neurotransmitters send signals to your brain that you are having a pleasurable experience.

Replacing One Chemical for Another

Now, consider what happens if you use power drugs to achieve a high.

This may include:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Amphetamines
  • Opioids

These are very powerful drugs. When taken repeatedly, they actually replace the chemicals your brain produces naturally.

Think of your brain as a vat containing a lot of chemicals. Now, with drug use, the vat is emptied and replaced by these drugs. Eventually, the only way you feel anything is by putting the drugs into your system.

Additionally, the problem becomes that your brain also becomes reliant on these synthetic chemicals. This is not just for feeling the euphoria of the high, but it ultimately needs the drugs just to get through the day.

Why Addiction Is So Hard to Beat

This is the reason why it is so hard to beat an addiction. Your brain now craves that supercharged feeling of pleasure and reward. In fact, it becomes more and more difficult to feel any kind of pleasure or positive feeling without the substances. They become a crutch, handicapping your brain so that you now “need” those substances just to feel anything at all.

Moreover, your brain develops a tolerance over time for the drugs you are taking in. Thus, you must take more every time just to achieve the high that you originally experienced.

This relationship between the brain and drugs also explains the cravings you experience if you don’t use for a couple of days. You start to desire the drug more and more. In fact, it becomes the only thing that you can think of. Hence, you do things that you normally wouldn’t in order to achieve that high. This explains the desperate, bizarre, and even dangerous behaviors people engage in to reach that high once again.

Recovery and Addiction Treatment

It’s important to note that all this information is not meant to be discouraging. Nor should it be seen as casting judgment. Far from that, it is meant to inform you why your brain is acting the way it is. The reasons why you are stuck in addiction are based on science. Addiction is not due to a flaw in your character.

Yet, what to do now?

The good news is that with treatment it’s possible to recover from addiction. One component of recovery is medication because it can aide during the withdrawal period. It may seem distasteful to use more drugs to get off of drugs. However, these medications can help you to be more successful in getting sober.

The other component is addiction counseling. Both approaches used together can help you with finding recovery from substance abuse.

The science of addiction tells us that the relationship between chemicals and the brain is finely balanced. When you wash away the chemicals your brain naturally produces, they are replaced by others that send your pleasure/reward system on overdrive.

Trying to break this cycle on your own isn’t easy. However, with addiction counseling and support you will have a better chance of breaking the substance abuse cycle. It would be my pleasure to help you get on the path to healing.

Author

Joshua Howell, MS, LPC, NCC, AADC, ICAADC, SAP, SAE

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