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Addiction and Brain Chemistry

Addiction is a loose term. We often use it to refer to a behavior that is out of control in some way, but even "out of control" can have different definitions for different people. Someone may engage in a behavior every day and even experience withdrawal when he stops, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has an addiction.

Addiction researchers define addiction in a more precise way, with what they call the four Cs:

  • Craving to engage in the behavior or substance abuse
  • Loss of control concerning the amount or frequency of use or behavior
  • Compulsion to use or engage in the behavior
  • Continued use/behavior despite harmful consequences

These four criteria point to how an addiction affects brain chemistry. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brains that helps control our feelings of pleasure and reward. When released, it can reinforce motivations to seek out certain behaviors or to continue them. And some people release more dopamine than others, which may be why some become addicted and others don't.

Research also suggests that addiction may also be influenced by our preferred decision making processes. People who make decisions that focus more on the outcome rather than the process will often engage in more high-risk behaviors in order to receive the reward more quickly.

Over time, addiction causes the brain to release more than five times the normal amounts of dopamine. The behaviors or substances create a need in our brains only they can meet. The high levels of dopamine cause receptors to close and the release of dopamine to be less pleasurable, meaning more of the behavior or substance is needed to achieve the effect.

Over time, the addiction process can be corrected through cognitive behavioral therapy. Our brains can be retrained or rewired. Therapy may include:

  • Mindfulness or meditation that creates greater control over the brain and enables the ability to break habits
  • Changing or challenging our thoughts
  • Diet, since what we eat affects how we feel
  • Exercise
  • Regular sleep patterns and enough sleep
  • Altering routines
  • Support groups that include people who have been through the addiction and recovery process
  • Making a plan and having coping mechanisms

Speak with your primary care provider for more information on addiction and other mental health services.