Addiction is not as simple as some people would like to believe. The science tells us that it’s more than a choice to use. Addictive behaviors are actively stored in the brain as memories thanks to dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter (see below) responsible for controlling the pleasure centers in the brain, and when we use drugs, the reward and pleasure centers receive a sudden rush of dopamine. This triggers the brain to imprint that moment into memory so that it is more easily replicated, or put another way, “Holy crap, that was awesome! Let’s make that exact awesomeness happen again!”
All abused substances – to include caffeine, nicotine, and sugar – cause this flood of dopamine. The potential for addiction is directly tied to how much dopamine is released and how quickly.
As time goes on, the brain adapts to the constant input of active substance use, and enjoying the drug becomes indistinguishable from wanting it. This leads to increased use, which itself leads to a need to use more to achieve the same results because that constant barrage of dopamine causes something else to happen. When the pleasure centers are repeatedly cranked up to 11, the brain decides it doesn’t need as many pleasure receptors, and fewer receptors mean you need more input (drugs) to fire the receptors that still exist. This is what’s known as tolerance.
At this point in active addiction, the addictive behavior isn’t about pleasure anymore, it’s about maintenance. It’s not about getting high, it’s about feeling something. What’s more, it’s not even a conscious decision – it’s literally our brain compelling us to recreate the situation that gave us so much pleasure before.
Between 40 and 60% of people will relapse at least once, but not because they’re weak. The word ‘trigger’ is common in recovery, but it’s good to realize that the triggers that can cause relapse are deeply-embedded MEMORIES. We have to learn to cope with and manage these memory triggers so that when they appear, they don’t cause relapse.