The human brain is an amazing super computer. It has seemingly unlimited storage potential and manages all our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. So much happens behind the scenes that we sometimes forget how much conscious control we have over our thought process. For better or for worse, the choices we make influence our daily habits. Unfortunately, some repeated choices train our brain in unhealthy ways.
Addictions are unhealthy patterns of behavior that enslave our brains to psychologically and/or physically crave a habit. Unhealthy addictions can include pornography, prescription drug abuse, illicit drug abuse, gambling, shopping, sex, over or under eating, etc. These addictions hijack our brains, disrupting normal operations. Recent studies from Harvard Medical School show that the brain can suffer physical damage over the course of an addiction. Additionally, some drugs create permanently damage to the brain's tissues and neurotransmitters.
Addictions confuse the brain's pleasure centers
How Stuff Works explains that when we do something that makes us feel happy, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel good. Because we like the way we feel, we repeat the behavior. Unfortunately, addictive behaviors hijack the brain by mimicking this dopamine release. Drug use (and other behaviors) creates a massive rush of dopamine that floods the brain, producing the sensation known as a "high." The rush of dopamine overwhelms the reward center of the brain and disrupts normal functioning.
Over time, the brain compensates by either producing less natural dopamine or by reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the brain. The result of having less dopamine in the brain blocks that person from fully enjoying other experiences. Other activities that typically produce happiness don't feel as good anymore, and the drug or addiction becomes necessary to simply feel "normal" as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse this tolerance; Because dopamine levels are altered in the brain, more and more amounts of the addictive substance are needed to sustain that "high" feeling.
Addictions rewire your logic
Oftentimes, an addict recognizes that the addiction is unhealthy. Someone struggling with an eating addiction may hear the doctor describe ominous risks and consequences. A college student may face expulsion charges due to alcohol consumption on campus. Despite those harmful consequences, Harvard Health Publications reports the brain is wired to seek out what feels good, and an addiction hijacks natural instincts in favor of the addiction.
Instead of seeing addictive behavior as the cause of the problem, addicts may describe their addiction as the only thing that helps them cope with life. Alcoholrehab.com explains that casting blame is very common, and how skilled addicts are at blaming their problems on anything but the addiction.
Drugs create compulsive dependence
How Stuff Works teaches that "under the disease model of addiction, the brain's motivational center becomes reorganized. The priorities are shuffled so that finding and using the substance (or another substance that will produce similar effects) becomes top priority as far as the brain is concerned."
This is the third way an addiction hijacks the brain. An addict's life compulsively revolves around obtaining their "high." The compulsive behavior is irresistible and overwhelming. As if in survival mode, the brain thinks that the addiction is necessary for survival.
When scientists take pictures of an addict's brain, they see changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Weakness in these areas can drive an addict to compulsively engage in their addiction despite its devastating consequences, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Many drug addictions also form a physical dependence, which means the body also craves the drug. When the effects of the drug wear off, a person's body feels discomfort or pain, compelling the user to require more of the drug to feel better.
Recovery is possible
Luckily, for people who desire to stop their addictive behaviors, there is hope! Counseling and treatment centers exist to help with a wide array of addictive behaviors. Whether the addiction is related to heroine, shopping, alcohol, or sex, it is possible to overcome an addiction. Even though the brain keeps permanent memory files of the addictive behavior and its pleasurable effects, a person can learn to avoid relapses and gain control over his or her thoughts and behaviors. Recovery is possible.
If you worry about your own addictive behaviors, or if you have a loved one who might be struggling with an addiction, contact a professional counselor in your area. The sooner recovery begins, the less damage the brain endures. Our supercomputers are willing to be rewired.
Nicci Bontrager, MA, LPC-Intern, NCC practices counseling in the Austin, Texas area. On her blog, www.joyfulfamilylife.com, she writes about strengthening families, marriage, emotional health, & finding joy. She graduated from Texas State University.