The Addict Brain thumbnail

The Addict Brain

The brain is the most powerful tool we have. It can drive us to succeed, limit us to certain behaviours, hold our fears, file our memories and it tells our physical body what to do to stay alive. Without our brain we would not breathe, and our hearts would not beat, yet we still pay little attention to how important it really is.

Today’s world sees us inundated with information from the time we are born – colours, sounds, technology, movement, and limitless opportunities. For some, this creates a wonderous space of intrigue and enrichment and for others it creates overwhelm and a sense of inadequacy. When we feel overwhelmed or out of our depth the brain will look for ways to support us to adapt or cope with the sensations that are causing us to struggle.

Sometimes, these feelings will cause us to withdraw or avoid certain situations or activities. This is a coping mechanism. It is our way of trying to manage in this dynamic world. For others, this period of struggle can illicit the beginning of addiction.

The pleasure centre in our brains is always on the lookout for Dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that the brain produces as a reward when good things happen for us or when we participate in enjoyable activities. Watching funny cat videos online, going for a ride on your bike, talking to a loved one or eating a perfectly ripe mango can all cause your brain to release Dopamine. When Dopamine is released, we feel happy, motivated, and content. But what happens when we receive a larger surge of Dopamine? Alcohol, and many illegal drugs, cause a big surge in the release of Dopamine. That giant jolt of happiness feels wonderful at the time and takes us to places in our mind that we might never have experienced before. A feeling of euphoria, unbridled enthusiasm, limitless behaviour, and pure unrelenting joy is hard not to love! For some, these occasional jolts of joy are all they need. For others, seeking out those jolts becomes the focus of their life. When someone has been struggling or feeling down or like life lacks meaning it is quite easy to experience a dopamine rush and want to feel it repeatedly and even strive to experience it in higher levels every time. This is when addiction and the addict brain enters the room.

Put simply, the addict brain looks for reasons and excuses to continue to seek out that Dopamine rush. No addiction begins at a high dependency level on day one. Likewise, no one sets out to develop an addiction. Addiction, and the addict brain, builds over time and with experience. Each time we have an experience that causes that large Dopamine jolt our brain registers the feeling. When times are tough or everyday life feels overwhelming the brain triggers the memory of that enjoyable jolt and reminds us how good that felt and how easily it could all happen again. Our addict brain tells us all we need to do is seek out that enjoyable jolt and everything will be fine once again.

If you read this and think it sounds simple to recognise what the addict brain is doing and simply avoid giving it what it wants…think again! When we do not give in to the demands and avoid those jolts of joy the brain employs a range of tricks to try and make us think that we are in control and that seeking out those jolts is the best thing we can do for ourselves. The brain might say ‘You’ve had a rough day at work – you deserve that drink’ or ‘Lots of people use drugs socially and they are ok – I am the same!’ When it comes to diet and exercise the addict brain might tell you ‘If you eat anything at all today you will get fat’ or ‘I know my PT worked out this program for me, but I can do much more exercise – I just won’t tell them I am doing extra.’

Every time we try and break the Dopamine jolt cycle the addict brain will be there with an excuse or unhelpful dialogue that makes us more likely to talk ourselves into engaging in harmful behaviours.

Often, we do not realise we have a problem with addiction until we try and cease an activity. We might go on a holiday and find we spend most of the time seeking out a gym to workout in most of the day rather than enjoying the scenery. A glass of wine at dinner has become an entire bottle and the prospect of participating in ‘Dry July’ is daunting or impossible. Using a party drug only when you attend a concert turns into every weekend. You try and stop counting carbs but find it consumes your thoughts even more than it did before.

Just remember, it never starts out as a conscious thought to create an addiction, the addict brain needs to be understood to be controlled. If you need to discuss concerns around addiction, either for yourself or your loved ones or staff members you can make a confidential, free appointment with me for counselling and wellbeing support – or even just a chat!

Kathleen – email partnersinwellbeing@ausactive.org.au or mobile 0456 380 307

References:

https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/dopamine
https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain.htm

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