The Brain & Addictive Behavior

We perceive the world, think about our perceptions, produce emotions from those thoughts, and combine these as storage in our memories. The brain produces behavior to ensure our well-being. Disruptive behaviors happen when there is distortion to this system such as addiction.

Addictive behavior due to recreational drugs or alcohol consumption over time are due to the pleasure and reward system in the brain. These experiences are stored as powerful memories of how great it felt to be “high.” Environmental cues associated with being “high” are learned by the brain. These cues activate the pleasurable memories and create cravings. Pleasurable sensations propel wanting the drug. Cravings drive and sustain most addictions.

The frontal lobes, or our thinking area, become physically altered in addiction with increased focus on cues connected to addictive behavior and a neglect of other things. Procedural memories of getting high become dominant and the ability to resist impulses to obtain and use drugs or alcohol become impaired. The frontal lobes atrophy impairs delaying gratification and making decisions based on long-term rewards. The focus is on getting high instead. This is the reason people have lost their jobs, their homes, their friends, and their families and anything else important because the addictive person can’t think clearly due to the focus of getting high.

Cues and memories create cravings by activating the pleasure centers of the brain. Cravings activate procedural memories of getting high and produce behavior to achieve the reward.  This becomes the focus and pattern of the addictive behavior cycle. Repeated overstimulation by positive rewards and the development of cravings for even greater levels of reward lead to specific changes in the brain that create addiction. The level of reward usually decreases over time with continued activation resulting in tolerance where more is needed to get the same pleasure responses. Cues in the environment associated with the addiction create cravings. The cravings increase and poor impulse control can make them irresistible. where such cues are present, there is an increased risk of a relapse back into addiction. Temporary quitting is easier than permanent quitting because of this. Stress, anxiety, and depression raise relapse risk. Those individuals with ADHD, antisocial personality, and conduct disorder are more susceptible to addiction and higher risk for relapse due to weakened frontal lobes.

Studies show that 40-60% of addicts have at least one relapse after recovery and many have several relapses before recovering. Despite devastating consequences in their lives, addicts will be focused on getting high. Genes also make a difference because some people are more vulnerable than others. Addicts have different personality styles, behavior patterns, levels of addiction, and responses to treatment. For many, controlling their addiction is not possible and abstinence is necessary to break it. It is estimated that 25 million people over the age of 12 use illicit or illegal drugs. 52% of age 12 and over are current alcohol drinkers. Americans alone use over 80% of world’s opiates. Addiction is a chronic disorder. Why are Americans prone to addictions? In today’s world, people are working twice as hard with lower pay and not taking vacations, their stress levels are high,  their financial security has been swept from underneath them, their debt is high, and two thirds go to work ill. In order to treat the addictions, first the problems that started the cycle need to be fixed.




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