Addiction and the Brain
Dopamine is our brain’s natural fell good chemical. We get a normal dose of dopamine when we do things that are pleasurable such as eating, playing, talking with friends, and making love. When we use drugs, gamble, and binge eat, or view pornography we get an inordinate amount of dopamine.
When we use drugs or act out compulsive behaviors our brain remembers the circumstances surrounding the powerful rush of dopamine. The people we were with, the places we were and the things surrounding the compulsive behavior all get wrapped up and filed away together by our brains. The next time our brains are reminded of the people, places, and things surrounding our compulsive behaviors our brain also remembers the powerful rush of dopamine. Our brain then begins to say, “Go get that dopamine!”
Have you ever went to a movie and as you walked in the door you were assaulted with the smell of popcorn and immediately were thirsty for an ice cold Coke? The reason this happened is you have enjoyed a coke with popcorn before. Your brain recorded the pleasurable event as a memory. When the memory of the popcorn was triggered by the smell, the memory of the coke also fired. Your brain immediately began saying, “Let’s do that again!” The same thing happens surrounding our compulsive behaviors leading us back to our addictions.
Now that we understand in part how our brains work in addiction, we understand more than ever the importance of avoiding triggers. A great deal of recovery focuses on this vital step.
Often triggers are placed into three categories People, Places, and Things. A fourth more abstract category is also necessary. I simply call this category, “Feelings”. In the, “Feelings” category I place harder to define triggers like hunger, boredom, anger, anxiety, and depression.
Here is what’s going on in our brains during compulsive behaviors and or drug use:
#1. Pleasurable activities stimulate the VTA to make a normal amount of dopamine (Our brains natural pleasure, or feel good chemical). Binge eating, Drug use, Gambling, Pornography, and other Compulsive behaviors produce extreme levels of Dopamine.
#2. The Nucleus Accumbens (Ventral Straiatum), pleasure center of the brain created to feel pleasure within normal ranges feels extreme amounts of pleasure when abused. Excessive abuse causes, “Excitotoxicity” (Nerve cell damage from overactive receptors).
#3. Serotonin and GABA (Your body’s natural calming ability) are decreased.
#4. Hippocampus: Remembers the details and context of our memories, the who, what, when, where, why, and how.”
#5. Amygdala: Connects emotions to memories. The stronger the emotion (Good or bad) tied to the memory the more vivid it will be. Also reinforces good memories and says, “Let’s do that again!”
#6. Locus Ceruleus: Alarm center of the Brain. Responds to Stress or Danger. Tells the body to have a physical reaction if it does not get the dopamine rush. (Believes we need the drug like we need food, water, air)
Matt Bulkley from starguideswilderness.com states, “When one uses drugs like cocaine, these pathways are tricked into releasing uncommonly high levels of dopamine in our brain without us having to do anything for it. The reaction of these pathways to viewing porn is exactly the same. These ‘pleasure’ pathways become permanent as the porn addict continues to go back to the activity – watching sexually explicit images – to experience the release of dopamine.”
On June 28 2012 counselingalliance.com stated, “The odd thing about chronic pornography users is that they generally began using porn as a result of the pleasure it brought them (dopamine’s role as discussed above). With continued use however, pleasure diminishes. The trap of pornography is that pleasure becomes an elusive prize. The more the user searches for pleasure, the less he/she finds it. Here’s why:
The repeated high doses of the “chemical bath” associated with orgasm result in the brain’s inability to process and enjoy those chemicals at the same level it so desperately craves. What was once like a jolt of electricity surging through the central nervous system is reduced to a point it is no longer satisfying. Addicts often report symptoms of depression, relational problems, and a general sense of the joy of life having been lost. Why? Because the natural balance and function of the brain’s neurochemicals have been replaced by frantic search for another “fix.”
Some refer to sex addiction as the ultimate attention deficit disorder (ADD). Like ADD, the addict is continually scanning and searching for a new and novel experience. One way this search for new and novel experience plays out in the lives of users is that their search leads them to web sites and areas that they would normally have no interest in. For example, some who consider themselves straight and traditional in their sexual preferences will find themselves looking at gay porn or sado/masochistic websites in an effort to discover something new. It is the brain’s search for novelty, and for a chemical fix that leads the person to such sites. This, coupled with the fact that the high resolution video often available in today’s Internet porn is more graphic and more violent than what was available even a few years ago, leads the user deeper and deeper into the trap of seeking a novel experience. The overall result is like the preverbal “carrot on a stick.” The satisfaction one seeks is always just out of reach and so the efforts to capture the experience continue on and on.”
I’m reminded of the age old story of Satan in the garden tempting Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The ancient serpent promised the first man and woman that they would be like God. He sold them the lie that there is something far greater for your life if you just partake of this forbidden fruit. For Adam and Eve of course the deception distracted them from a healthy pursuit of love, joy, and peace. They became discouraged, and dominated by their sin which lead down a path of destruction.
The same is true for us today. When we believe the lie that there is greater love, or joy, or peace in our addictions or compulsive behaviors the deception distracts us from a healthy pursuit of love, joy, and peace. We become discouraged as the high is never enough; we can never replicate that original euphoria. Our behavior begins to dominate more and more of our lives until we are ultimately destroyed. These are 5 D’s of Addiction.