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by Eddie Smith
Addiction and the brain are closely connected. Although addiction can cause severe brain damage, revolutionary new brain therapies can help treat addictions.
What does addiction do to the brain?
Addiction impacts the brain on many levels. The chemical compounds in stimulants, nicotine, opioids, alcohol and sedatives enter the brain and bloodstream upon use. Once a chemical enters the brain, it can cause people to lose control of their impulses or crave a harmful substance
When someone develops an addiction, the brain craves the reward of the substance. This is due to the intense stimulation of the brain’s reward system.
In response, many continue use of the substance, unlocking a host of euphoric feelings and strange behavioural traits. Long-term addiction can have severe outcomes, such as brain damage, and can even result in death.
The Biochemistry of addiction: The brain responds to addiction based on a number of factors, such as the type and number of drugs used, the frequency, and the stage of addiction. For example, if someone uses cocaine, they will notice a feeling of euphoria. This occurs because cocaine is a psychoactive and impacts the area of brain that controls pleasure and motivation. Therefore, there is a short, but powerful burst of dopamine – the chemical that causes many to feel euphoric. This feeling can be so intense that a strong desire to continue using may form.
The more someone abuses a drug, the more they may continue using it, unless they get help overcoming a life-threatening addiction. Once the chemical has affected the brain, individuals can feel physical symptoms, as well as the impact of the chemical throughout the nervous system. These can include rapid heartbeat, paranoia, nausea, hallucinations, and other disturbing sensations the individual has little control over.
He or she may become consumed with abusing the substance to maintain their habit, no matter the cost. As a result of this powerful grip of substance abuse, individuals can begin acting in unrecognizable ways concerning friends and family.
Rewarding the brain: how addictions develop:
The brain regulates temperature, emotions, decision making, breathing and coordination. This major organ in the body also impacts physical sensations in the body, emotions, cravings, compulsions and habits. Under the influence of a powerful but harmful chemical, individuals abusing substances like benzodiazepines or opioids can alter the function of their brain.
Drugs interact with the limbic system in the brain to release strong feel-good emotions, affecting the individual’s body and mind. Our brain rewards us when we do something that brings us pleasure.
To illustrate, individuals continue taking drugs to support the intense feel-good emotions the brain releases, thus creating a cycle of drug use and intense highs. Eventually, they take the drug just to feel normal.
The Brain, Addiction, and withdrawal: As a consequence of drug addiction, the brain rewards the brain. It encourages drug addiction, keeping the individual in a cycle of highs and lows, on an emotional roller coaster, feeling desperation and depression without it.
Once someone suddenly stops, there are harsh mental, physical, and emotional results. Individuals may experience distressing symptoms they cannot ignore for some substances; withdrawal symptoms are generally stronger for some substances than others.
At the point of withdrawal, someone who stops using feels intense cravings, depression, anxiety and sweating. Much of this is due to the rewiring of the brain after extensive substance use. In this stage, the individual may not have a full- blown addiction but may have developed a tolerance or dependency.
Over time the high volume of chemicals floods the brain, causing it to adapt to the mental effects of the substance. The brain then reduces its production of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers in the brain. Withdrawal symptoms often need professional treatment, which can significantly help reduce the chance of relapse and the risk of stroke or heart attack.
The treatment for addictions: The classical approach to the treatment of addiction falls into three distinct phases – detoxification, rehabilitation, and maintenance.
Detoxification: Consists of a period of abstinence from the drug in question. This is usually done under medical supervision and may last for, or, between ten days and three weeks depending on the severity of the addiction and the classification of the drug abused.
The process may be enhanced by using certain medication which helps to prevent any complications. This is best achieved if the client is admitted to a specialised clinic or to a hospital. It might also be done at home when there is competent support from the family and supervision from the community nurse. This approach is only recommended for clients with the necessary home support.
The rehabilitation phase: Consists of a period of eight to twelve weeks of intense counselling and drug education together with tips on how to avoid relapse as well as how to recognise it when it happens. This period can be extended if required depending on the cooperation and compliance of the client.
During this period a variety of therapeutic interventions are used to help the client to come to terms with the nature of his or her addiction and plan a route to recovery. These interventions may include psychotherapy, addiction counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, to name a few.
The maintenance phase: the final phase consists of regular monitoring the client’s progress and recording the amount of time he or she is able to stay clean while learning to appreciate life without using the drug.
During this phase the client is encouraged to attend individual and or group psychotherapy sessions where he or she is encouraged to share their experiences during this phase of their recovery. This period is open ended and can last as long as the client remains clean.
However, it is stressed that relapse in itself is part of the recovery process and they are advised to come back to rehabilitation if they recognise the signs of relapse occurring in them even before they take the first drink or drug
Eddie Smith BSc (hons) (Dip.Counselling) is a senior counsellor with the Centre for Counselling Addiction Support Alternatives (CASA).