Many factors can contribute to a person seeking drugs or alcohol in an addictive way—genetics, environment, trauma, co-occurring mental health disorders, and lots of others. What causes someone to drink or use is different for everyone, and often a combination of things. However, the ways addiction changes the brain tend to be consistent from person to person.
The brain has an incredible ability to keep learning and changing throughout a person’s lifetime in response to their environment. This is called neuroplasticity. In essence, addiction is the dark side of this neuroplasticity; when a person chronically drinks or uses, their brain learns to expect alcohol or drugs.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in learning and anticipating rewards. If a person’s brain categorizes an activity as pleasurable, dopamine motivates them to repeat it. Drinking and using drugs produce artificial levels of this neurotransmitter.
The brain always seeks balance. When it gets used to chronic substance use, it adjusts by lowering dopamine receptors. This results in the substance feeling like the main source of pleasure, even as it becomes less and less pleasurable. Making matters more complicated, people with addiction are more likely to have had lower dopamine receptors before ever picking up a drink or using drugs.
In addition to this, substance use disorders impact the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and other forms of higher processing. Even as problems build in a person’s life, it’s more difficult to control the strong urge to use substances. Addiction also impacts the amygdala—a part of the brain involved in the conditioned fear response—that can leave a person feeling stressed and wanting to seek drugs or alcohol, which their brain has now categorized as comfort.
It can sometimes be hard for people on the outside to understand why someone would continue using as their life becomes unmanageable. But on top of all these brain changes that make it very hard to break the cycle of addiction, when a person’s life is difficult, they go to what they know will help soothe them—even if temporarily.
In recovery, people need healthy tools to cope with strong emotions and self-soothe. It can take practice to become more comfortable managing difficult feelings and experiences without substances. But it’s always worth it. While the process isn’t as immediate as changing how you feel with a substance, it allows for all the beautiful things in life that most of us want.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is help and hope. TruHealing offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you get and stay sober. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.