The reward system is a brain circuit that causes pleasurable feelings when you do something that feels good, such as eat good food, fall in love, or engage in a hobby. When an activity is categorized as pleasurable, the brain responds by producing dopamine.
Addiction is said to “hijack” the reward system because drugs and alcohol chronically flood the brain with dopamine. In order to maintain balance, the brain responds by reducing dopamine receptors. People with addiction then need more in order to feel good, and their brains have learned that drugs and alcohol will give them dopamine.
According to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, “In simplistic terms, activation of the pathway tells the individual to repeat what it just did to get that reward. It also tells the memory centers in the brain to pay particular attention to all features of that rewarding experience, so it can be repeated in the future.”
This is why triggers are so often discussed regarding recovery; people, places, circumstances, or feelings that remind you of your active addiction days can trigger your brain’s memory of a reward and make you want to use substances.
However, the longer people stay sober, the lower their chance of relapse. In recovery, you create new pathways and memories and practice healthy ways to cope with triggers. While addiction changes the brain, recovery is always possible.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is help and hope. TruHealing Centers 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 learn and practice coping skills to respond healthily to triggers. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.