Understanding the Problem

How Addiction Affects the Brain

Substance use disorders — addictions — are medical conditions that develop through repeated use. Neuroscience demonstrates how severe substance use disorders — addictions — make it very difficult to be able to simply “choose” to stop because of how chemicals released through substances rewire brain function. Thankfully, recovery, and a return to a fulfilling life and healthy brain function, is possible with proper support and care.


The Nature of Addiction

Understanding the nature of addiction and other mental health challenges lessens shame and increases motivation to seek help. Older approaches to recovery viewed addiction as a moral failure or just the result of poor decisions. Many taught that people simply needed greater willpower to change. However, scientific research has shown this perspective to be woefully incorrect. Active addiction can rapidly become a serious medical condition by rewiring the brain around unhealthy patterns. Our backgrounds, childhood experiences, genetics, and other factors outside of our control also affect the likelihood of developing addiction.

Rewards Reprogrammed

In addiction, the brain is re-programmed so that unhealthy reward patterns, motivations, and memories become hard-wired into one’s conscious and subconscious thinking. Chemicals released in the brain are responsible for the “good” or “bad” feelings we have. Consuming certain substances, or through experiences like sex, gambling, binging and purging, or playing video games, create temporary positive feelings. Over time, the brain’s reward system becomes rewired, as we “learn” what gives us feelings of pleasure or safety when we’re faced with fear, uncertainty, or pain, causing an increasing dependency on those substances or experiences.  The strength and amount of the chemicals released, and their frequency, significants the development process of a dependency or addiction. The “high” can begin to crowd out other healthy sources of gratification and enjoyment. People can get so used to the short-term “high” that it becomes their dominant daily pursuit.

Early exposure to substances, particularly during the teenage years when the brain is still developing, is particularly dangerous. It can hinder the natural process of learning healthy rewards and longer-term gratification. During use, other parts of the brain record the context where the ‘high’ was experienced, later causing the intense craving and “triggers” that individuals dealing with addiction can feel in certain environments or situations. While there are differences in the consequences and effects of different substances (for instance, a  heroin or opiate addiction looks different than an alcohol addiction, which looks different than a methamphetamine addiction or an addiction to gambling or sex), there are substantial similarities in how the brain is affected and rewired through addiction.

Healing and Recovery Are Possible

There is good news about recovery: our brains are neuroplastic. That means the reward system and other functions and connections in our brains can be rewired and reformed. Unhealthy habits can be replaced with healthy ones. It may take time, but it is possible for an addicted brain to relearn and experience enjoyment, gratification, and satisfaction from positive behaviors.

Related: Recovery, Discovery, and Design: Doug’s Story

Recovery presents an opportunity to experience growth in areas where we have developed unhealthy ways to find safety, security, and pleasure, often due to trauma and disconnection or early substance use. We can discover resources which empower healing and find tools that enable us to process thoughts and emotions in life-giving ways.  Given how the brain can become rewired in addiction, it is important to seek help from external resources from both medical professionals and other supporters.



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