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An In-Depth Look at How Addiction Affects the Brain

Many of the misconceptions about Addiction Disorders revolve around misunderstanding how addiction works. Addiction Disorders are not a matter of willpower as many people believe; they are a disease that alters the way your brain works. Addictive substances and behaviors affect the production and performance of neurotransmitters. They also alter neural pathways and have a lasting impact on the very structure of your brain. 

That is why Addiction Disorders are so difficult to overcome on your own. Healing from an Addiction Disorder requires more than simply quitting the object of your addiction. The process involves restructuring the brain to build healthier neural pathways, thought patterns, and behaviors. 

If you are looking for treatment for your Addiction Disorder, it is essential to work with a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who understands how addiction affects the brain. Learn more about the processes and changes that occur as a result of Addiction Disorders with this overview. 

Pleasure and the Brain’s Reward Center 

Before there is addiction, there is pleasure. Whether someone’s Addiction Disorders lies in substance abuse or addictive behaviors such as gambling, sex, or porn, the issue stems from the pleasure response these activities cause in the brain. 

When the brain experiences pleasure from any source—either healthy or unhealthy—it releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in the brain’s reward center. To put it simply, the release of dopamine creates feelings of pleasure. 

This is what is so addictive about drugs, alcohol, and addictive behaviors; these activities offer a way to experience immediate pleasure. The more powerful the dopamine release of a substance or activity is, the easier it is to experience pleasure from it and the more addictive it becomes. 

Dopamine Affects Learning and Motivation 

Pleasure is not the only thing at play during the development of Addiction Disorders. Dopamine interacts with other neurotransmitters in the brain, influencing and sometimes disrupting various cognitive processes.  

If you experience dopamine releases because of addictive behaviors or substances, that dopamine can alter the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is in charge of the part of the brain that revolves around reward-based learning. This system ties reward, pleasure, motivation, and survival together to encourage and build habits necessary for life. For example, when you experience pleasure after eating a meal, that is your brain’s reward-based learning system at work. It trains your brain and your body to continue eating good meals so that you continue to gather sustenance and nutrients. 

Addiction Disorders can overload this system, though. Dopamine releases from drugs, alcohol, gambling, unsafe sex, binge eating, and other addictive behaviors can retrain your brain to pursue these unhealthy habits. This release creates unhealthy motivations and desires as you seek that easy pleasure from the object of your addiction rather than from healthy sources. 

Other Negative Effects on the Brain 

As Addiction Disorders continue to develop and dopamine continues to affect the brain’s systems, it creates problems with focus, decision-making, and more. Addiction Disorders build habits in the brain—habits that take precedence over many other crucial processes. This weakens rational decision-making skills, leading to poor judgment and other unhealthy behaviors associated with Addiction Disorders. Additionally, addiction’s effect on learning and motivation creates problems with focus, memory, and other similar processes. 

Tolerance and the Decline of Pleasure 

The human brain is incredibly resilient and can adapt to changing circumstances throughout your entire life. Unfortunately, this can sometimes work against you—as is the case with Addiction Disorders. As you use your addictive substance or participate in addictive behaviors more, the brain adjusts to the pleasure response to make it less overwhelming.  

This results in tolerance, wherein the brain produces less dopamine or reduces the number of dopamine receptors to make the pleasure response less effective. Drinking, using drugs, or participating in addictive behaviors no longer has the same effect on your reward center, so they become less pleasurable experiences. You need to feed your addiction more than ever before to achieve the same literal or metaphorical high. 

Memory, Craving, and Compulsion 

Increased tolerance leads to increased cravings. As your brain limits the effects of dopamine to prevent addictive behaviors and substances from overwhelming your reward center, other parts of the brain grow reliant on the addictive activity. 

Recall the interaction of dopamine and glutamate and how dopamine alters the brain’s reward-based learning center. These alterations come into play again as your brain’s reward and learning systems continue to crave the effects of the object of your Addiction Disorder. As it becomes harder to experience pleasure from addictive substances or behaviors, it also becomes harder to experience pleasure from every other aspect of life.  

Meanwhile, processes in the hippocampus and amygdala—areas of the brain involved in learning and memory—create conditioned responses from memories and environmental cues revolving around your addiction. This conditioning leads to the formation of triggers that spark intense cravings and can even lead to relapse after you are in recovery. 

Neuroplasticity and the Path Toward Recovery 

Neuroplasticity refers to the process of forming neurons and altering synapses. If you think of the brain as a machine, then neuroplasticity is the act of rewiring it. Neuroplasticity is a critical part of how addiction affects the brain. However, this process can be both positive and negative.  

As Addiction Disorders develop, it is neuroplasticity that creates unhealthy neural pathways that strengthen cravings, weaken decision-making skills, and build dependence and tolerance. 

At the same time, though, neuroplasticity is the path toward Addiction Disorder recovery. Just as the brain changes in the face of addiction, it can change to overcome addiction, regain control, and build healthier neural pathways. 

Licensed Clinical Psychologists use neuroplasticity in their treatment plans. Through evidence-based therapy models, Licensed Clinical Psychologists can encourage the development of new neurons and neural pathways, creating stronger, healthier thought patterns. This restructuring of the brain leads to lasting positive change and true recovery for patients with Addiction Disorders. 

Addiction Treatment at Blair Wellness Group 

Recovering from Addiction Disorders is all about overcoming the habits and neural pathways that build from the brain’s reaction to addictive behaviors and substances. Restructuring the brain in this way takes time, dedication, and expertise. But through professional intervention and treatment from a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, you can break the cycle of reward, tolerance, and cravings and instead build stronger neural pathways and healthier thought and behavioral patterns.  

If you are looking for treatment from an Addiction Therapist in Los Angeles, Irvine, Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, Bel Air, Century City, Brentwood, Westwood, Huntington Beach, Mission Viejo, Aliso Viejo, and the surrounding areas, contact Blair Wellness Group to see how our evidence-based treatment plans can help you. 

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Our Psychologists and Therapists in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Irvine, Newport Beach, and the surrounding areas offer evening and weekend appointments for our Concierge patients. Contact us today to discover how Blair Wellness Group can help you overcome personal or professional challenges and mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, relationship challenges, addiction issues, and personality disorders. 

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