A growing body of research has been key to understanding addiction for what it truly is: a complex brain disease that involves changes in brain structure and brain chemistry. Like other chronic diseases, individuals must learn to manage their condition and its symptoms in order to put addiction into remission and prevent relapse.
Professional treatment offers a number of therapies that can help patients retrain their brains and manage their behavior so they can deal with the cravings that can occur long after they have stopped using.
The Brain’s System of Communication
The essential problem of understanding addiction lies in how the brain biochemically communicates its messages. A variety of neurotransmitter chemicals are produced in the body that create feelings of desire, pleasure and satisfaction. When these chemicals are disrupted, such as through addiction or other disease, the body fails to maintain the chemicals needed to produce normal reactions on its own.1
These chemical changes and imbalances accumulate during addiction and alter the individual’s behavior. Professional treatment is needed to understand the thought processes and behavior affected by these changes and to develop the skills to cope with cravings and prevent relapse.
Lasting Changes in Dopamine Production
At the heart of the brain changes caused by addiction is the chemical neurotransmitter dopamine. This chemical is responsible for creating feelings of pleasure, such as when eating, socializing or having sex. When an individual uses substances, the pleasurable effect is much stronger than the normal feelings that dopamine naturally produces.
Addictive substances cause a flood of dopamine that is much more intense than what could be naturally produced.2 As a result, this artificial stimulation of dopamine production reduces the normal production mechanism. This is why individuals in treatment often feel numb and unable to feel pleasure after they’ve stopped using a substance. Their normal dopamine production and sensitivity have diminished.
In addition, the hippocampus holds the memory of this increased dopamine reaction. Any “trigger” that calls to mind the memory of the substance, or circumstances under which it was used, can cause a reflexive “craving” that can defeat all good intentions to stop using. This chemical memory makes quitting difficult, and it’s why individuals who have stopped using the substance for a long time may still experience strong cravings that can lead to relapse.
Understanding Addiction: Retraining the Brain
The professional treatment uses a variety of therapies to help undo the damage caused by addiction. In some cases, medication can be prescribed to reduce cravings or keep withdrawal symptoms at bay. This allows time for individuals to learn new methods of coping with stress, mental health issues and lingering effects of past trauma.
Group and individual counseling sessions can help people to understand their motivation for using substances to cope. Cognitive behavioral therapies help to change negative thinking patterns and modify behaviors. Relapse prevention training helps people in treatment to recognize the triggers that can lead them back into substance use.
Creating an aftercare plan can help people maintain recovery after completing treatment by ensuring that they continue to work on their sobriety. Aftercare plans may include counseling referrals and attendance at 12-step groups or other support groups.
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, professional treatment can help you to overcome the biological changes that keep you locked in addiction. The therapies offered in an addiction treatment program can help you to change your thought processes and behavior so that you can begin rebuilding a healthy, productive life.