How Does Addiction Impact The Brain?
One of the biggest indicators that addiction is a disease is how it impacts the brain. Addiction can completely change the brain chemistry and create life-threatening, disabling complications that change a person’s life without treatment. When discussing how addiction impacts the brain, we first have to understand the pleasure-reward response.
When we satisfy our basic needs, such as hunger, sex, and thirst, we feel a sense of pleasure. We feel this pleasure because when we engage in activities to satisfy these basic needs, the brain releases certain chemicals that make us feel good. We learn to associate satisfying our basic needs with reward, which helps keep us alive.
When we use an addictive substance, our brain releases these same chemicals, in very high amounts. When we keep using this substance over a certain period of time, we learn to associate using drugs or alcohol as a pleasure or reward.
The continued release of these pleasure-creating chemicals can change our brain function over time. We experience changes in how our brain processes reward, memory, and motivation. As a result, we do not feel normal if we do not use the substance. We become dependent on the substance to restore normalcy to our lives. When we do not use the substance, we start to experience intense cravings for it, which makes it very difficult to stop using the substance even though we know it is not healthy for us.
When it comes to addiction, we can prioritize the substance over other basic needs due to changes in brain chemistry. These changes can stay in our brains for a very long time, even after we seek treatment. As a result, relapsing back into using the substance is very easy due to physical and environmental triggers.
Giving up the substance also leads to intense withdrawal symptoms that can be life-threatening based on the type of substance and severity of the addiction. To fully recover from an addiction, a person needs to seek medical treatment to safely detox from the substance and develop strategies to address the root causes of addiction as well as to combat relapse triggers.