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The Science Behind Addiction

Addiction is a chronic disease. You do not become an addict because you are a bad person or because you lack willpower.

While the initial decision to drink alcohol or use drugs is usually voluntary, no one starts out wanting to be an addict. At some point, other factors kick in and turn casual use into an addiction.

What causes addiction?

To understand what causes addiction, let us take a closer look at the brain and how it works.

The reward center

The brain is designed to help us stay alive. It keeps our lungs breathing and heart beating without any effort from us. It also sends and receives messages all day long to let us know when we are tired or hungry. Well, it also has a reward center.

When we do something enjoyable, such as eating something yummy or exercising, the brain releases dopamine as a reward. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or a chemical that sends messages. Its messages increase our mood so we feel more satisfied or motivated. It is frequently referred to as the happiness hormone.

The brain’s reward center does this because it is part of the brain’s arsenal to keep us alive. By releasing dopamine, it is telling us to keep repeating that same behavior to thrive. Its purpose is to create the desire to remember and repeat that thing that made us happy.

Unfortunately, using alcohol and drugs can also trigger a dopamine reward in a similar way to dancing to your favorite song. When substances are introduced into the body and dopamine is released, the brain cannot identify them as bad. After all, the happiness hormone sends out its message of joy. Instead, the brain learns to seek out the drugs to repeat the pattern that released the dopamine.

A hijacked brain

While dopamine may provide an initial hit of pleasure or happiness, it doesn’t last long. As the dopamine wears off, some people will seek that same hit by taking the same substance again and again.

But, continued use of a substance causes tolerance to build up. As alcohol and drugs are repeatedly used, the brain becomes less receptive and releases less dopamine. The person no longer gets the same rush. To get the same hit of dopamine, higher and higher doses must be consumed.

Tolerance doesn’t just impact substance use. The brain begins to be less receptive to pleasure from any source, not just alcohol or drugs. People begin to use more just to feel “normal.”

Over time, the continued use disrupts the brain’s normal communication pattern, which is to send, receive, and process information. Instead, the brain becomes hijacked. What used to be normal brain wiring begins working against you. The brain minimizes the reward center by releasing less dopamine to make you happy. At the same time, its alarm system increases the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which make you feel stressed or in danger.

Frontal cortex problems

As substance usage turns from days to weeks to months to years, it continues to wreak havoc on the brain. Because alcohol or drugs are now associated with happiness in the brain, it sends out cravings when the effects of the alcohol or drugs start to wear off. Cravings are more than just a signal from the brain. The brain can involve the whole body in the craving process.

The frontal cortex of the brain also becomes compromised. This is the front part of the brain that is responsible for memory, judgment, and problem solving to name a few key functions. When the frontal cortex doesn’t work properly, those functions are impacted significantly.

Dr. Volkow, director of the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said “Brain imaging studies of people addicted to drugs or alcohol show decreased activity in this frontal cortex. When the frontal cortex isn’t working properly, people can’t make the decision to stop taking the drug—even if they realize the price of taking that drug may be extremely high, and they might lose custody of their children or end up in jail. Nonetheless, they take it.”

From the moment that a person begins drinking alcohol or using drugs, their brain is impacted. The longer they use the substance, the greater the impact on the brain. Unfortunately, as the brain chemistry shifts, it makes it harder to want to give it up.

Who is most susceptible to addiction?

Not everyone who drinks or does drugs gets addicted. So, why does it impact some people while it doesn’t others? The quick answer: some people are just more at risk of being an addict.


Per NIDA, a person’s genetics account for 40 to 60% of their potential risk of becoming an addict. This means that if it’s in your genes, you’re more susceptible to it. This is why addiction tends to run in families.

Genes are not the only biological factor. Individuals who suffer from behavioral health or mental disorders are also more at risk than those who don’t have those challenges. They often turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism to relieve the stress or manage the discomfort.
Other possible biological factors may include gender and ethnicity.


Individuals who have suffered past trauma are also more susceptible to becoming an addict. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response” to an event or series of events that caused someone harm or was life-threatening. Events such as domestic violence, rape, bullying, car accident, parental neglect, and abandonment are all examples of traumatic events.

Those who have experienced trauma often suffer from its effects for years. It is not uncommon for them to turn to alcohol and drugs to numb their pain, relieve their stress, or disassociate from their life.

Other environmental factors that may lead to addiction include chaotic home life, peer influence, poverty, and parent usage.

Early exposure

The earlier someone starts using substances the more susceptible they are to being an addict. The brain continues to develop well into a person’s 20s. If they are exposed to alcohol or drugs at an early age (childhood or adolescence), it impacts their development.

As those children and teens turn into adults, they are more likely to continue using as adults.

How to avoid addiction

Does anyone remember the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign from the 80s? Well, avoiding addiction is more than just saying “no.” Here are several things that can be done to help prevent addiction.


Educating people is key. The more that people know about the risks of alcohol and drug abuse, the more likely they are to avoid going down that path.

Substance abuse education should start early since many teens experiment with alcohol and drugs. Education can come from all possible sources: families, schools, communities, and the media. Parents can be particularly invaluable in educating their kids by being good role models.

It’s not only important to educate people on the risks of substance abuse, it is equally important to teach people about having a healthy lifestyle and healthy coping mechanisms. Again, the earlier the better.

As individuals encounter stress, heartache, grief, pain, or whatever negative emotion, they can rely on those healthy coping skills to manage their emotions rather than turning to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope.


Self-care involves many different things. You might first think about doing things to pamper yourself like taking a vacation or getting a massage. But, self-care is more than that. It can include eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, meditating, reading, taking a class, cooking a meal, and much more. It’s all about doing things every day to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

This should also include having things in your life that you are passionate about or enjoy doing. These should be things that are healthy and meaningful to you. Hobbies fit into this area. And, there are tons of hobbies to choose from, including gardening, photography, painting, putting together puzzles, hiking, writing, dancing, baking, and more. Volunteering is another great activity to do. Many people and causes can benefit from your involvement.

Healthy relationships

While self-care focuses on you doing things that are meaningful to you, it is equally important to develop healthy relationships with the people in your life. Develop a solid support system made up of family and friends. This allows you to ask for help when you’re having a bad day or struggling with a problem. It also allows you to have that human connection that is so important to survival.

How to recover from addiction

While there is no cure for addiction, it is treatable. It is absolutely possible to recover from being addicted to alcohol or drugs. It does take time and effort.

Keep in mind that treatments are not one-size-fits-all. No one method works for every addict. It is important to find a program that fits your needs based on numerous factors.

As you search for a program, consider the following:

  • Do you need an inpatient, outpatient, or residential program?
  • Are there certified addiction counselors on staff?
  • What training does the staff have?
  • Do they specialize in your specific addiction?
  • Is detox included in the program?
  • Is medical detox available if needed?
  • What type of behavioral or mental health therapy is included?
  • Is nutrition part of the treatment plan?
  • What post-treatment support is available?
  • Is there family support?
  • What is the length of the program?
  • Will they take your insurance?

As you shift from addiction to recovery, you may feel like you’re losing a part of yourself. This will be an opportunity to rediscover who you are without alcohol or drugs. Remember to give yourself grace. Overcoming addiction is not easy and it will be something that you’ll need to stay on top of for years to come. Look for things that bring you joy and contribute to your health.

If you or someone that you know is struggling with addiction, there is a treatment program out there for you. We encourage you to find a program that fits your needs. At Jackson House Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, we are here to help. We have created a community that is committed to helping you on your path to recovery. If you’re interested in learning more about our residential addiction treatment programs, contact us for a free consultation to discuss your needs.

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