How Addictions Get Stuck in Your Brain
Why are some people who overdo it with alcohol, food, sex, or other things, able to remember the consequences of their actions, learn from their mistakes, and avoid repeating the behavior? And why do others minimize the consequences, maximize the pleasure they got from the activity, and continue to engage in the same destructive behavior?
The answer lies in the way your brain is wired.
Why Am I A Slave to These Cravings? Understanding the Brain’s Reward System
Whether you experience consequences and quit the bad behavior or keep repeating it depends in large part on the biological makeup of your brain and your brain’s reward system. What is the brain’s reward system? It is an intricate network of brain systems and neurotransmitters that are critical to human survival. It drives us to seek out the things we need to stay alive and carry on the human race.
Many other things that are not necessarily crucial to our survival also activate the reward system:
- Listening to music
- Taking a warm bath
- Looking at a beautiful painting
Then there are substances and behaviors that are actually detrimental to our health and well-being that cause the reward system to kick into high gear such as:
- Caramel fudge brownies
- Playing video games
- Excessive texting and gambling
Let’s take a closer look at the neurotransmitters and brain systems involved in the reward system so you can see how it works and how it gets out of whack. First, let’s examine the role played by four neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters act as the brain’s messengers, relaying information within the brain. The strength or weakness of each of these neurotransmitters plays an important role in your ability to stop engaging in bad behaviors or in driving you to addiction.
BRAIN CHEMICALS INVOLVED WITH CRAVINGS AND SELF-CONTROL
Dopamine—motivation, saliency, drive, stimulant
Serotonin—happy, anti-worry, calming
GABA—inhibitory, calms, relaxes
Endorphins—pleasure and pain-killing properties
- Dopamine is a feel-good chemical. Whenever we do something enjoyable, it’s like pressing a button in the brain to release a little bit of dopamine to make us feel pleasure. Cocaine, methamphetamines, alcohol, and nicotine all cause dopamine surges that make these substances highly desirable—sometimes even more desirable than the things we need to survive like food, water, and sex. The amount of dopamine released when drugs are taken can be two to ten times more than what your brain produces for natural rewards.
- Serotonin is thought of as the happy, anti-worry, flexibility chemical. Many of the current antidepressants work on this neurotransmitter. When serotonin levels are low, people tend to be worried, rigid, inflexible, oppositional and argumentative, and suffer from anxiety, depression, obsessive thinking, or compulsive behaviors. Simple carbohydrates increase l-tryptophan in the brain, which is why some people can get hooked on cookies, bread, potatoes, and sugar.
- GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms or helps to relax the brain. If you have suffered an emotional trauma or you are under a lot of stress, GABA may be depleted and your emotional or limbic brain may become excessively active, making you feel anxious, uptight, or sad. This makes you eat or drink in an attempt to calm your limbic brain.
- Endorphins are the brain’s own natural pleasure and pain-killing chemicals. They are the body’s own natural morphine or heroin-like substances. These substances are heavily involved in addiction and the loss of control.
Why Can’t I Just Say No? The Brain’s Self-Control Circuit
The brain systems that drive you to seek out things that bring you pleasure and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which puts on the brakes when you are about to engage in risky behavior, work in concert to create your self-control circuit. In a healthy self-control circuit, an effective PFC provides impulse control and good judgment while the deep limbic system offers an adequate dose of motivation so you can plan and follow through on your goals. You can say no to alcohol, hot fudge sundaes, cigarettes, gambling, sex fetishes, and many other bad behaviors.
In the addicted brain, the PFC is diminished and the drive circuits take control. When the PFC is underactive, it can create an imbalance in the reward system and cause you to lose control over your behavior. When this is the case you are more likely to fall victim to your cravings. Having low activity often results in a tendency for impulse-control problems and poor internal supervision.
Imaging changes everything. At Amen Clinics, we can help you and your loved ones overcome the stigma and suffering associated with addiction issues. If you are ready to regain control over your life or help a loved one do the same, give us a call at 1-888-288-9834 or click here to ask a question.