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Beating the Disease: How Addiction Affects Your Brain

Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction? If so, you’re certainly not alone. 

According to the Surgeon General, at least one in seven people may experience addiction. There’s no doubt that addiction has become a public health crisis, one that we must fight. This point is especially true when you learn that every 19 minutes, someone dies of an opioid or heroin overdose. 

It’s not just heroin or opioids, either.

The disease of addiction takes many forms—it’s not limited to drugs and alcohol, although substance abuse is a prevalent one. Addiction can manifest as a dependence on food, sex or porn, gambling, smoking, and more. While it is difficult and challenging to experience and overcome an addiction, one beacon of light is noting how addiction is a disease, rather than a choice

Much like getting sick or developing a physical health issue, addiction is a mental or emotional sickness. That means it can be broken down and understood biologically. How does addiction affect the brain, and how can you ‘train’ your mind into fighting it?

In this guide, we highlight what this all means, so that you can seek the help you need for yourself or a loved one. Keep reading as we dive into this subject.

Physical Effects of Addiction

Research shows that the disease of addiction “hijacks” the brain. Those same studies, conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH), actually call addiction a brain disease that has biological, observable explanations. They state that it’s both complex and long-lasting.

Because of this, addicts need willpower and good intentions to fight addiction—but they also need much more, such as support and assistance from a program or treatment center. The reason is that once addicted to a substance, the chemical make-up of the brain changes. Also, the more severe the addiction, the more disruptive it is to the brain, causing a person to work even harder to return it to its normal state.

In a brain unaffected by addiction, the brain aids a person in healthy decision-making, such as avoiding eating something bad for dinner. It also rewards healthy behavior and keeps a person safe.

In a brain affected by addiction, these brain circuits reward negative behavior instead of positive, prompting a person to make unhealthy decisions. The pleasure and reward response now applies to addictive behavior (having another drink, reaching out to a drug dealer, etc.), essentially hijacking its decision-making capabilities. The person then becomes hooked.

Addiction also takes those danger-sensing circuits in the brain and applies them to a lack of using. Therefore, when someone stops using, they become anxious and stressed, because the brain wants another sip, hit, etc. To avoid these negative feelings, an addict often turns to more drugs, alcohol, or addictions—a seemingly neverending cycle.

Addiction’s effects on an individual’s ability to make decisions (located in the pre-frontal cortex) makes it nearly impossible to recognize damaging and addictive substances.

These physical effects also manifest in emotional ways in the brain.

Mental and Emotional Effects of Addiction

Many individuals, whether addicts or not, understand that addiction has both short- and longterm physical effects. But something that’s just as essential to look at is the effects of dependence on the brain’s mental state.

When someone chronically uses drugs or alcohol, they can develop a slew of short-term or long-term mental health issues, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Aggression towards the self or loved ones
  • Hallucinations
  • Mood disorders
  • Lack of self-love or self-confidence

In addition to the potential for developing these mental health illnesses is the knowledge that many addicts already suffer from mental health issues. In fact, that’s often a catalyst for a drug, alcohol, or other addiction. Therefore, chronically using drugs or alcohol can increase the adverse effects of already-present problems.

People who are addicted to drugs are indeed two times more likely to suffer from mood and/or anxiety disorders—and the reverse is correct, too. 

As well as the issues listed above, addicts can experience:

  • Feelings of isolation
  • Reckless behavior, such as seeking adrenaline highs from dangerous activities
  • Loss of interest in daily life, work, school, relationships, hobbies, and more
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Trouble focusing
  • An inability to find pleasure in things that previously caused pleasurable feelings
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Behavioral changes

The amount to which someone experiences these mental and emotional repercussions depends on many factors, such as the severity of the addiction, the presence of mental health issues pre-addiction, and more.

What to Do If You or Someone You Love Is Struggling With This Disease

There’s no question about it: addiction affects the brain in numerous ways. 

It can cause a slew of mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety, agitation, and more, which can affect other areas of a person’s life—work, school, relationships, hobbies. It also affects several functions with the brain itself. The unfortunate thing about experiencing these effects is that an addict is likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol—contributing to a vicious and hard-to-beat cycle.

Being hard to beat means it’s challenging, but certainly not impossible. In fact, many people find themselves on the other side of addiction and go on to lead fulfilling lives. This disease can be overcome.

And we can help with that.

If you or a loved one notices signs of addiction, it’s never too soon or too late to get help. At Soba in New Jersey, we pride ourselves on a client-focused, practical approach that is customized to a person’s needs, allowing them to get the best assistance, support, and resources possible.

Contact us today to speak with one of our admissions coordinators. Take the first step in recovery.

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