We know the basics of what constitutes an addiction: a compulsive need for a particular substance that takes priority over things like relationships, work, and the person’s financial situation.
To many people who have never had a brush with addiction, it can seem a bit surprising that a person’s need to drink or use drugs can feel more important to them than their loved ones, their job, or their bank account. If you’ve never experienced addiction, it might be hard to understand how this can happen.
The short explanation is that the addictive substance changes the way the user’s brain is wired. Here’s a look at how that happens.
The Brain Receives Feel-Good Hormones
Everyone’s path to trying drugs or alcohol for the first time is different – someone may be peer pressured into it while another person may be looking for an escape. However, once the drug enters the body, it sends a rush of hormones to the brain.
Depending on the substance, the brain may receive a rush of serotonin (the happy hormone), oxytocin (the love hormone), or dopamine (the pleasure hormone). It’s important to note that all of these chemicals are also produced naturally in the body. The drugs, however, provide an artificial rush of these hormones which activates the reward system in the brain, causing the user to feel high. The rush of hormones caused by the drugs is often stronger and more powerful than a person might experience naturally.
The method of ingestion plays a role in how quickly these chemicals are sent to the brain. Snorting or injecting a drug makes the effects almost immediate.
Experimentation Becomes Addiction
Depending on the substance, an addiction may form after only one or two uses. Heroin, for example, is one of the most addictive drugs out there, because it’s able to get into the brain very quickly and activates the neural pathways very strongly.
But, no matter which drug you take, the brain will eventually begin to adapt. It tries to balance out the feel-good hormone surges by either producing less of the hormone naturally or reducing the number of receptors.
As a result, the user feels the need to continue using the drug to bring their levels back to normal. That feeling of “normal” is what becomes more important to the user than friends, family, work, or money.
This is also how tolerances are built; the user requires higher doses of the drug in order to achieve the same high.
Recovering from Addiction
Depending on the substance, the severity of the addiction, and the individual, longer periods of detoxing and more intensive methods of treatment may be required to recover from the addiction and get the brain back to normal.
The most important thing to note, though, is that lifelong recovery is absolutely possible for any person with any addiction.