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Addicted Brain

The Addicted Brain & Disease Model of Addiction Workshop

We encourage families to engage in perspectives that bring an understanding of addicted loved one’s behaviors during their active phase of addiction. Your support for your addicted family member is critical as he or she undergoes the complicated process of unscrambling the brain’s dysfunctional thought processes.

At the turn of the 19th century, scientists were studying people who exhibited an unnatural craving for alcohol and other substances or behaviors, as society viewed them as being generally depraved with no morals.

As studies advanced our understanding of these behaviors, treatment shifted from abandoning lost and suffering souls with addictions in mental institutions to treating the patient with compassion while the disease was treated with legitimate psychological and medical care.

Today, evidence-based treatment has proven effective and patients frequently go on to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. Ongoing studies continue to help addiction professionals better understand the disease and its relationship to the physiological and psychological changes it causes within the body and mind.

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Empower Yourself with Knowledge

The First Step to Healing is Learning About The Addicted Brain

Understanding the brain’s role in addiction diminishes negative connotations for those battling the disease. This allows for a change in one’s initial perception of those struggling with addiction, broadening the ability to understand and support a loved one in treatment or recovery.

In addition, it can change the addicted individual’s perception of the disease, which may help him or her break down a wall of denial and reverse negative self-views.

Educating addicted individuals and their loved ones brings immediate enlightenment to the specific mechanisms of the disease and how it reaches out to include people who care about the addict. Loved ones can be part of the healing by participating in therapy and developing awareness of their role in perpetuating the disease.

Substance and process addiction treatment can heal individual members of your family, as well as help rebuild the family unit.

Process Addictions and Substance Abuse Disorders

Substance use disorders fall into a category called process addictions. Process addictions are where an individual repeatedly does an activity to receive mood-altering chemicals from the brain’s limbic system. Those chemicals released from the brain when the individual engages in the activity can include dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and adrenaline. Other process addictions include sex, shopping, eating, gambling, and gaming.

Process addictions share many of the same symptoms as drug and alcohol addictions, including uncontrollable cravings, personal neglect, issues in close relationships, concerns at work or school, engaging in risky behaviors, social withdrawal, and a significant change in lifelong priorities. Due to those brain chemicals, people can have more than one addiction process and become addicted to repeated engagement in those activities. Many people develop process addictions to cope with internal struggles like depression, bipolar disorders, and anxiety disorders.

In recent research, scientists have found that although these addictions have many similarities, it’s important to bear in mind that a process addiction doesn’t negate the possibility of an additional addiction to substances. For example, a recent study found that addictive gamblers are 3.8 times more likely to have a substance addiction to alcohol.

Staying Treatment-Focused Breaks the Cycle of Addiction

The Disease Model of Addiction Offers Hope for a Full Recovery


The Corruption of the Limbic Reward System

The addicted brain sustains a malfunction in the manufacturing and managing of the chemicals in our brains that are responsible for making one feel confident and content.

The reward system in the brain is at the heart of the malfunction caused by addiction, which is illustrated below. At this workshop, families are able to grasp a basic understanding of how the reward pathway (indicated in purple) plays a key role in the difficulty of overcoming addiction. When this pathway is stimulated by rewards such as drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping or gambling, dopamine and serotonin levels spike and travel from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) through the nucleus accumbens—the brain’s pleasure center—and continues into the area that manages judgment, problem-solving and self-control.

This area is called the prefrontal cortex and is the last part of the brain to fully develop at 23-24 years old. As teens, adolescents and young adults battle addiction, hormones can be disrupted, interrupting the brain’s rate of development and creating a dangerous vulnerability for individuals in this age range.

Scientists now understand that while there is no long-term cure for addiction, the simple act of giving up drugs, alcohol or a behavior isn’t enough for lifelong recovery. A reorganization of the brain must be accomplished through a variety of psychological therapies, which focus on healing all perspectives of one’s life including relationships with an individual’s loved ones.

Experts agree that pleasurable memories of addiction are strong and permanently embedded in the brain. This indicates that one shouldn’t strive to forget these memories but to embed healthy habits and coping mechanisms instead. To accomplish this, an individual may need to enhance or reinforce treatment in regular support meetings after a program has been completed.

What Happens to Serotonin & Dopamine When Your Loved One Has a Substance Use Disorder?

Dopamine is a chemical within the body that delivers messages between brain cells. It plays an important role in body movements, what we choose to eat, our mental learning processes, and the way we feel. These ‘messengers,’ or neurotransmitters, travel back and forth through the brain’s synapse to the nucleus accumbens, eventually sticking to molecules called dopamine receptors.

Take cocaine for example. Cocaine causes the brain to release more dopamine. The more dopamine that’s present in the synapse, the more joy we feel.

Dopamine manufactures pleasurable feelings that our brain associates with physiological survival behaviors such as physical activity, eating and sex. The reward of pleasurable feelings drives our compulsion to continue doing these things.

Drugs and alcohol overwhelm the synapse with an abundance of dopamine, creating a higher expectation of joyful or euphoric sensations when consumed. These superficial sensations are short-lived and over time, the brain is unable to naturally create the amount of dopamine it requires for healthy brain function. This makes the brain dependent on the substance as the ability to capture pleasurable feelings becomes increasingly elusive.

Confidence and happiness go hand in hand; it’s often difficult to have one without the other. It’s the same with dopamine and serotonin—joy is to dopamine as confidence is to serotonin.

Serotonin is created when we consume tryptophan or vitamin D. If a serotonin deficiency is present, one could be mislabeled as having anger management issues. Consuming alcohol, barbiturates or benzodiazepines can help relieve the symptoms of a serotonin deficiency; however, it can also lead to addiction, liver damage and even death.

The Corruption of the Dopamine Pathways is Where your Loved One’s True Addiction Originates

cocaine and dopamine

What is Drug Seeking Behavior When the Brain is Addicted to Drugs & Alcohol?

Individuals seeking substances with the above strategies may not recognize these actions as drug-seeking behavior, as one of the most common characteristics for people with an addiction is denial.
If you’re able to perceive drug-seeking behavior in someone you care about, it may be time to consider a safe and respectful intervention.

The addicted brain produces the narrative that it’s unable to function without a regular supply of the substance and must do whatever it takes to maintain it to survive. People with addictions often become extremely resourceful and are usually willing to sacrifice their well-being and that of their family to maintain a steady rate of drugs or alcohol.
In this workshop, we discuss some of the following drug-seeking behaviors that you may have recognized in your addicted family member such as:

  • Frequently ‘losing’ a prescription or having one ‘stolen’
  • Exaggerating the severity of symptoms
  • Frequent visits to several different doctors (or out of town doctors)
  • Frequent emergency room visits with textbook symptoms that a particular drug is designed to relieve
  • Diagnosis of the ailment is often the second priority to obtaining specific drugs for its symptoms.

Severe addictions seem to remove all traces of the person we once cared about and replace him or her with someone we don’t recognize. Addicted loved ones often devolve into irritable, lethargic, people with depression, anxiety and a curious new network of friends. It’s not uncommon for addicted individuals to abandon previous moral and ethical standards for their addiction, frequently resorting to criminal activities to support the financial cost.

Understanding Why Your Loved One Can’t Just Stop Doing Drugs and Alcohol

For many people, it’s hard to understand why an addicted person doesn’t simply make better decisions, such as choosing not to drink or use drugs. It can seem as easy as choosing between bottled water and a bottle of beer, but the reality is that several compelling factors work against addicts and alcoholics when faced with the opportunity to drink or use substances.

When the addicted brain stops receiving the steady supply of chemicals it’s grown accustomed to, immediate dysfunction causes common symptoms such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, restlessness and body aches. The most conspicuous withdrawal symptom is usually the powerful cravings that drive relapses.

“Psychological stress from work, family problems, psychiatric illness, pain associated with medical problems, social cues (such as meeting individuals from one’s drug-using past), or environmental cues (such as encountering streets, objects, or even smells associated with drug abuse) can trigger intense cravings without the individual even being consciously aware of the triggering event.

“Any one of these factors can hinder attainment of sustained abstinence and make relapse more likely,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-based Guide (Third Edition.)

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