How Addictions Get Stuck in Your Brain

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:

  1. Listening to music
  2. Taking a warm bath
  3. 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:

  1. Cocaine
  2. Methamphetamines
  3. Heroin
  4. Alcohol
  5. Caramel fudge brownies
  6. Playing video games
  7. 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.


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.


  1. I have followed Dr. Amen’s work for several years and it is truly Amazing the work he is doing! I hope that his brain scan technology will be available to people who’s insurance doesn’t cover these scans someday. It makes total sense to find the root of the problem so we can heal society on a whole. My daughter is Highly intelligent and yet has been diagnosed with bipolar and given a array of drugs and she has only gotten worse over the years. It’s heartbreaking to watch her suffer. I’ve known about Dr. Amen’s work for several years and have always believed we need to get to the root cause of the problem, NOT put a drug band-Aid on it. Which I have seen over the past 10 years with her and things have only gotten worse and more concerning. She has extreme symptoms of highs and lows and she sleeps way too much. As her mother watching her life spiral for the past 10 years it angers me that something so Simple as a brain scan could change her life and yet it’s not an option for a lot of people. If I could afford to pay for the scan I would in Hot Second….

    Comment by Cheryl Autry-Brumby — November 19, 2017 @ 6:21 AM

  2. How does ADHD fit into this picture? If addictions diminish a PFC that is already diminished by ADHD, does that mean that people with ADHD are more susceptible to addictions?

    Comment by Ted Behr — November 20, 2017 @ 7:08 AM

  3. I totally agree with the thrust of this article. There are definitely healthy and unhealthy ways to boost the levels of happy chemicals in your brain. The problem with the unhealthy ones is that they tend to deliver large doses over longer periods of time with less effort than the healthy ones. As a result, your brain, flooded by an excess of dopamine, etc., actually turns off some of the receptors for those chemicals. That’s why it takes more and more of a substance or behavior to get that same high, and eventually, ever larger doses are required just to feel normal. The only real solution is a period of abstinence to allow those receptors to recover, accompanied by a daily program of healthy dopamine boosters, such as exercise, meditation, walks in nature, connecting with friends and family, or whatever else works to give your brain smaller, more regular dopamine hits. And the reprieve is only one day at a time. The minute you return to the addictive behavior, those brain pathways light up and the addictive process picks up right where it left off. That’s why so many people relapse.

    Comment by Richard Jenkins — November 20, 2017 @ 9:31 AM

  4. You actually make it appear so easy along with your presentation but I to
    find this matter to be really one thing which I feel I’d never understand.
    It seems too complex and very wide for me. I am taking a look forward in your subsequent
    put up, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

    Comment by nba live mobile coins — December 6, 2017 @ 12:45 PM

  5. I have struggled with alcohol addiction for over half of my life. I was sober for 9 years & then relapsed. I try to stay away from the alcohol but then sometimes my brain just thinks “screw it,” and I give in and drink. Then I hate myself. I just wish that I never, ever even wanted to drink again!! If only it was that easy:(

    Comment by Shannon South — December 26, 2017 @ 6:41 PM

  6. YES! I am ADD and I raised a daughter with ADHD. I fight addiction daily. Over the years I have lost some of the battles but the war is not over. I can say that I am 61 and have made it longer than many people thought I would.
    My daughter has been a different story. She has no addictions and has graduated college Magna Cum Laude. She teaches children with special needs. It wasn’t the easiest thing for her to do but she did it. I know I was blessed to not have to watch her make the same mistakes that I made. She had other friends with ADHD and some of them were not so blessed. The majority had addiction issues and some of them either overdosed or got killed in some drug related manner, yet others are institutionalized.
    I was informed by her doctor early on in her diagnosis that ADD/ADHD kids had a higher possibility of becoming addicts. It’s a battle that seems so unfair, they can’t control ADD/ADHD then they’re faced with a possible addiction problem, again, truly through no fault of their own. I pray they find ways to fix the brain.

    Comment by Sharon Lane — February 20, 2018 @ 7:29 PM

  7. Addiction is implicitly stored memory and cans be desensitized in 30 min using EMDR. Cravings and urges permanently eliminated and over past 4 years not one person needed detox or rehab post procedure. I need support getting research to look at these peoples brains to show addiction is remitted and prove addiction is memory. Please help!-Herb Cohen

    Comment by Herb Cohen — May 21, 2018 @ 3:21 AM

  8. How much are they?

    Comment by Tom Johnston — September 19, 2018 @ 11:06 PM

  9. Do you administer the EMDR? If so, begin now to document the client symptoms, the length & type of treatment & results, along with the client intake. Then write up the findings after you have 100 people.

    Comment by tom johnston — September 19, 2018 @ 11:12 PM

  10. How much does a scan cost?

    Comment by tom johnston — September 19, 2018 @ 11:12 PM

  11. Cheryl, please email text me the drugs that have made your daughter worse as i too was diagnosed bipolar at 17 but it may have been nutritional defect and ptsd from paretns arguing/alcoholism and sexual molestation to me at age 5 from someone else. plus a concusion. i want to sue some of the drgus for making people worse and sue the insruance for not covering 5,000 dollar scans but convering 2,000 dollar aplenzin pills yes 2 g for 30 pills aetna was paying. gentic tests need to allow the person to own it. You daughter genetically can only have bipolar if you or the dad do. if neighter of u do then it is something else perhaps parenting without religious counsel as Amen beleives in Christianity and this religion trains the mind to be more hopeful. on second thought just email me and waive our hippa privacy. hormones play a huge role too.

    Comment by holly — September 28, 2018 @ 4:19 AM

  12. 5g. i was censored when i wrote cheryl a longer note

    Comment by holly — September 28, 2018 @ 4:20 AM

  13. What is the possibility of curing schetsophrinia after enduring 30 years of the desiese and Brain meds ?

    Comment by Peggy moore — September 28, 2018 @ 4:49 AM

  14. The tests and dr. Consultations and plan of proposed action cost around $4,000 and extra recommended therapies , supplements, meds are in addition. You can get an interest free card so payments are broken down over 18 months. There are a couple other options if you call and talk to the clinic. Not cheap but could be a life changer…

    Comment by Wendy — September 28, 2018 @ 1:48 PM

  15. What is EMDR?

    Comment by Fowzia — October 4, 2018 @ 8:55 AM

  16. Hello Fowzia, here is a helpful video that explains Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR):

    Comment by Amen Clinics — October 4, 2018 @ 9:09 AM

  17. can you share a good diet and supplement for add and adhd

    Comment by di — October 18, 2018 @ 11:18 AM

  18. Dr. Amen’s recommended supplements can be found here: He has also written a cookbook that has recipes that are gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free, you can view it here: Dr. Amen’s new book, Feel Better Fast And Make It Last is available for pre-order (on sale November 13) and has many new recommendations about nutrition and alternative approaches to medicine and treatments:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — October 18, 2018 @ 2:14 PM

  19. I’m very sorry for your pain. I can tell you personally it’s very frustrating to find the correct treatment or combination of treatments without the much need information a brain scan can offer.

    A few years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Finding something to help me with difficult. But after much trial an error, an enormous amount of research, I can tell you what helped me. Everyone is different, but I’m going to throw out there what works for me. No one deserves to go through this much pain in difficulty. I hope it helps.

    Nothing can put a dent in my depression…

    And then I tried a sample of trintellix. It’s outrageously expensive. So when my sample the doctor gave me was gone I was out of luck. I found a pharm store that ships out of Canada, only drugs that are produced in Canada by the way, and It has changed my life.

    Secondly, and this has been phenomenal, is dysport. I read about it’s effect on treating bipolar and other severe depressive disorders that the usual drugs have been ineffective on.

    It’s incredible!! Basically you get an injection of Botox just above your nose just between your eyebrows. Dysport is basically the same as Botox, it’s a different brand, but it’s used for this region of your face more often. I received 45 units and The cost was $5 a unit. It is well worth it. I had to find the solution on my own. I wish someone would have told me about it. I really hope that it helps your daughter.

    I take lamotrigine in the morning and in the afternoon. That keeps my mood from fluctuating. I was taking risperidone which did help, but I just wanted to sleep all the time. But I was able to get off of that, and I’m so grateful of the options available today.

    I no longer suffer everyday. This has been a life-changing. Everyone is different, and since you can’t have a brain scan done, I hope this advice helps.

    Many blessings! You are not alone out there with this. It may seem hopeless sometimes, but don’t give up. My mom has been my rock, and be proud, your daughter is very lucky to have you. I hope things get better.

    Comment by Sterling — May 6, 2019 @ 5:33 AM

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