How Addiction Works

How Addiction Works

One of the first steps to getting the help you need is by understanding how addiction works. 

We've all heard a lot about addiction: it changes you, it will ruin your life, it will make you a liar, it will send you to jail.

While these are some of the worst effects of addiction, it's not really how addiction works. 

Addiction is a disease that starts in your brain.

Addiction Therapists in Colorado

Janelle Wagenknecht, MA, LPCC, ADDC

Janelle Wagenknecht, MA, LPCC, ADDC

(720) 710-0919
Mallory Heise, LPC, LAC

Mallory Heise, LPC, LAC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 602-1342
Arias Gonzales, MS, LPC, NCC

Arias Gonzales, MS, LPC, NCC

(719) 345-2424
Carrie Nelson, MS, LPCC

Carrie Nelson, MS, LPCC

(719) 345-2424
Susan Taylor, LPCC

Susan Taylor, LPCC

(719) 345-2424
Melody Reynalds, LPC

Melody Reynalds, LPC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Amber Chambless, LPC

Amber Chambless, LPC

(720) 449-4121
Barbra Styles, LPC, LAC

Barbra Styles, LPC, LAC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Jackie Erwin, LPC

Jackie Erwin, LPC

(719) 345-2424
Jenifer Seas, LCSW

Jenifer Seas, LCSW

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 452-4374

How Shame Increases Addiction

There are certain factors that raise a person's likelihood of becoming an addict. 

And, unfortunately, a lot of these are things that you can't change.

There is a very large stigma attached to drug and alcohol abuse: despite the fact that addiction is so common in the United States and many people are overusing alcohol and drugs. 

This stigma has been shown to increase people's addictive behavior and decrease their chance of seeking help.

This means that if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, try not to judge them. 

This might seem like silly advice, but research shows that drug users and addicts who are not treated as shameful are much more likely to recover.

This might be tied to the fact that compulsory treatment, criminal charges, and interventions have proven to be extremely ineffective in reducing drug use. 

Making someone feel like a criminal for having a disease often increases their propensity for criminal activity.

Also, research has shown that compulsory or forced treatments aren't effective. 

An addict has to want to seek treatment for it to be effective. 

This is why shame-reduction around addiction is so important: people are more likely to seek help if they don't feel like they are being judged.

How Addiction Works in the Brain

This article has already mentioned that addiction is a brain disease. 

That means that addiction starts in the brain.

Your brain produces chemicals whenever you participate in a pleasurable activity, such as eating delicious food, hanging with your family, or having great sex. 

The pleasure centers of your brain will start producing a chemical called dopamine. 

This dopamine produced in the brain gives you a feeling of a rush or happiness.

Your brain can't distinguish between wholesome pleasure sources, like meditation and hiking, and negative pleasure sources like heroin, cocaine, pills, or whisky. 

This means that when you take drugs or drink excessively, your brain will also produce dopamine. 

However, because it's the chemicals in the substances causing dopamine production, your brain will often produce a much larger amount of dopamine.

This is where the addiction cycle begins. 

The pleasure that your brain receives from these activities produces a large amount of dopamine and interferes with your brain's ability to produce dopamine normally. 

This means that you won't feel the same rush that you did after good food, great sex, or the things that you used to enjoy.

When a person's brain becomes dependent on substances for dopamine production that creates the addiction. 

Eventually, your brain will only produce pleasure signals after substance use. 

This is how dependence develops. 

How Addiction Becomes Dependency

This physical dependency on the substance becomes stronger over time. 

Eventually, an addict will only experience pleasure when their brain is producing dopamine because of drugs or alcohol.

Unfortunately, much of addiction can be traced back to the neuroplasticity of the brain. 

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to adapt, change, and evolve over your lifetime. 

Think about the ease that children have in learning languages: the high neuroplasticity when you're very young makes language acquisition easier.

The brain's ability to adapt is one of our strongest traits as a species. 

However, it can work against us when it comes to addiction. 

Our brain's neuroplasticity causes us to adapt to these larger dopamine rushes caused by substance use.

This builds a tolerance to the drug and the brain demands larger and more frequent amounts in order to feel satisfied. 

The amount of pleasure being produced will also decrease as the brain requires larger amounts to produce dopamine.

The addiction becomes less about the pleasure of the substance and more about the need for it.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

As the brain becomes dependent on large amounts of a substance in order to function, the health of the brain begins to deteriorate.

People who abuse substances will not just have trouble enjoying other activities, addiction will actually decrease the brain's ability to function over time. 

One key aspect of the brain that is affected is your executive skills. Your executive skills are your ability to focus, plan, make decisions, and engage with your life.

This is why we so often see addicts devolve into "bad behavior." 

This article has mentioned the stigma attached to addiction. 

But, while addiction isn't caused by bad choices it can create them by lessening your brain's ability to make good choices.

This is especially prevalent in those who started abusing at a young age. 

Research shows that the brain doesn't stop maturing - due to neuroplasticity - until someone is in their early 20s. 

This means that someone who begins abusing drugs or alcohol at a young age can permanently rewire their brain for addictive behavior.

This is why choices are such a bad approach. 

Addiction isn't created by weakness, bad character, or poor choices.

Addiction is created by physical changes in the brain.


Understanding how addiction works is important. 

It's important because there is much misinformation about addiction that only serves to feed the cycle of addiction.

When you know how addiction works, you've taken your first step toward getting treatment for yourself or someone else. 

You know that addiction isn't someone's fault.

It's a by-product of our brain's ability to adapt to our behavior - even if that behavior isn't good for us like an addiction.

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June 18th, 2024

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