Firstly, let us start with an important fact: understanding what drives addiction is not generally enough to beat it. However – an understanding of the way addiction hijacks the brain can help to explain why so many who want to stop are powerless in the face of a strong desire to quit.

Brain researchers have made great strides in recent generations contributing to a much deeper understanding of what underlies the addictive processes. When researchers first began studying addiction, they worked under the false premise that addicts were “weak-willed” or of “poor character.” Thankfully, modern science has debunked this myth and has proven that addiction is a complex, chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Scientists have also recently uncovered that addictions come in many forms; recent government data shows one in ten Americans are addicted to something, be it shopping, gambling, drinking, drugs or some other compulsive behavior.

The Roots of Addiction

How addiction affects the brain

The word addiction comes from the Latin term for “enslaved” or “devoted…” and anyone who has been affected by addiction —themselves or in someone they love — can attest to this.

Addiction has a powerful and prolonged effect on the brain. It manifests in several specific ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continued use despite negative consequences. Although addiction can be overcome, the process takes time and usually requires outside help.

Just as lung cancer debilitates the lungs and diabetes impairs the pancreas, addiction hijacks the brain. Most drugs affect the brain’s reward circuit by flooding it with the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Surges of dopamine reinforce the enjoyable but unhealthy activity, leading people to repeat the associated behavior again and again, even when returns are diminishing. This process helps explain the addicts’ experience of continuing to go back for more, even though the high is unreliable and the consequences are deadly.

In nature, rewards usually come only with time and effort. Addictive drugs offer a shortcut, flooding the brain with dopamine and other feel-good chemicals. The hippocampus lays down memories of this quick satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to the stimuli.

According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, addictive drugs can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards do, and they do it more quickly and more reliably. The drugs that we think of as particularly “addictive,” like nicotine and opioids, for example, cause a particularly strong surge of dopamine. In the drug addict’s brain, pleasure receptors eventually become overwhelmed. Over time, the brain adapts and produces less dopamine, and drugs no longer deliver the pleasure they once did. Drug users have to take larger amounts to obtain the same dopamine high because their brains have essentially re-wired themselves.

Why the Cycle is so Hard to Beat

How addiction affects the brain

By this point, the compulsion has usually taken over. Although the high associated with a  particular drug or behavior diminishes —the memory of the desired effect and the desire to recreate it persists.

Cravings, both physical and psychological, contribute not only to addiction but also relapse after hard-won sobriety. This inner conditioning and desire for instant pleasure can lead to relapse even after years of abstinence.

These stark facts have been confirmed by so many who want to be free from the grip of addiction but cannot stop using. The good news is that recovery is possible, and help is available if you don’t know where to start. Scores of people have found a way to break the cycle of debilitating addictive behaviors.

There is life after addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out today.