Addiction, Pain, and What Happens in Your Brain

addiction and the brain

It can be beneficial to understand the science of what’s happening to us at any given point in our lives. In terms of addiction, substance use disorder, or other co-occurring mental illnesses, understanding what is going on in your brain can benefit you and the people around you. Especially regarding the stereotypes and stigmatization surrounding the lack of understanding of these illnesses, backing it up with science helps to substantiate that this is a real illness and requires serious attention and treatment.

At Lakehouse Recovery Center, we focus on a curriculum that aims to educate on addiction, substance use disorder, and co-occurring mental illnesses. Our trained professionals can help you understand what you’re experiencing physically and chemically, and we hope that our support can help you maintain your long-term recovery.

Neurobiological Processes and Addiction

The Canadian Medical Association Journal tells us that scientific research and advances have helped to understand that neurotransmitter systems significantly affect the development of drug expression. Understanding these causes of dependence help in the development and implementation of effective treatment methods.

The article on the role of neurotransmitters in the cause and treatment of drug dependence examines how the brain reacts to different chemicals and stimulants like nicotine, alcohol, and opiates. Different substances create different behavioral reactions. The article discusses the dopaminergic pathways, or the “mesolimbic dopamine pathway,” and how they can be activated through “natural and artificial rewards” like food, sex, and drugs.

How Drugs Affect the Brain

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains in their article on drugs on the brain how drugs “interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters.” Some substances can activate neurons that mimic the effects of natural chemicals and neurotransmitters in our body, but not in a natural way. These substances activate the neuron but lead to “abnormal messages being sent through the network.”

Additionally, some drugs like amphetamine and cocaine can “cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters, or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters.” Essentially, they mess up how the brain is designed to communicate from neuron to neuron organically.

Severe Effects of Prolonged Drug Use

The scariest part of how drugs affect the brain is how they affect parts of the brain essential for basic life functions. Those major parts of the brain impacted by substance use disorder include:

  • The basal ganglia — this part of the brain is responsible for motor and basic functions, creating positive routines, and plays a role as one of the brain’s “reward circuits,” which drugs cause an overreaction of. Routinely increased exposure to that euphoria-like feeling makes it more difficult for people to feel pleasure the way the body is designed to naturally.
  • The extended amygdala — this part of the brain creates feelings of anxiety and uneasiness people typically experience. Anxiety usually follows the drug-induced high as a sort of withdrawal and often motivates further drug use.
  • The prefrontal cortex — this part of the brain is responsible for cognitive function, the critical thinking and problem-solving functions of our brains. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for a person’s ability to control impulse and is the last part of the brain to develop, making drug use at an early age so dangerous.

Some substances, such as opioids, also affect other parts of the brain. For example, if the brainstem is affected, someone’s automatic bodily functions can become impaired. These impairments of bodily functions might include issues with the heart, respiratory failure, and struggles to sleep.

Treatment, Recovery, and Brain Healing

Despite the toll addiction can take on the brain, treatment and recovery can reverse some damage to a certain extent. To learn more, the NIDA published an article discussing the treatment and recovery process, where they include the images of a brain recovering from methamphetamine. While the brain may be sensitive, we should not underestimate its ability to heal itself when given the time needed upon stopping substance use.

Treatment and recovery can involve a variety of methods. Behavioral therapy is often used, and in many cases, medications are administered to counter withdrawal symptoms, maintaining treatment, and preventing relapse. Be sure you communicate with your counselors, therapists, or case managers to ensure that a treatment plan is working for you. At Lakehouse Recovery, we provide individualized treatment to allow your mind, body, and soul to experience the healing and reconnection it needs.

Understanding what exactly is going on in your head when using substances or when you are dependent on addictive agents and behaviors can help treatment. Dependency occurs because substance use sends messages between neurotransmitters that evoke feelings of pleasure, happiness, and euphoria. However, these unnatural overloads of messages, chemicals, and dopamine levels can cause detrimental damage to one’s brain, and in turn, a person’s cognitive, motor, and basic functions. Over time, the brain can heal to some extent, but it needs to be allotted that time. Overstimulation of all those neurotransmitters may very well be leaving you to feel dissociated and disconnected from your body and reality. Treatment can help you reconnect and allow your body to experience the healing it needs. Lakehouse Recovery Center strives to treat, educate, and assist in healing anyone struggling with addiction, substance use, and co-occurring mental illnesses. Please call us at (877) 762-3707 today to receive the healing you deserve.