Dr. Cali Estes - The Addictions Academy ®

How Does Addiction Work in the Brain?

In the growing pursuit of tackling that ever-more-frightening unknown aspect of addiction, it’s worth knowing exactly how it works. Sure, we know the process, someone finds a substance, they abuse it, they become reliant, so and so forth. However, what exactly is that “hook” in the first step? Why is it that something like alcohol can get people addicted after a few drinks, but something like tea or water doesn’t have that same effect after the fortieth cup?

Well, addiction is centered entirely around one aspect of our lives we can’t get enough of: pleasure – specifically, the pleasure circuits in our brain. When we do things we enjoy and derive pleasure from, we receive a jolt of dopamine, the chemical that leaves one feeling satisfied. Drinking water or tea may give dopamine as it’s a pleasant experience that also may be quenching your thirst or fulfilling an urge, but abused substances are different. Things like alcohol, drugs, or even sugar may instead cause a dopamine overflow that’s ten times more effective than normal.

This would be considered a one-time high – unable to be replicated – but the brain desperately yearns for it yet again, nonetheless. The association becomes with the substance itself rather than with that first-time experience, and while the user may find glimpses of that peak with each use, they’ll become more fleeting as their tolerance builds up. This is addiction – chasing a peak that wasn’t worth it to begin with. The substance itself wasn’t good, it just made you feel good, manipulating the brain to spike and make the user chase an unobtainable goal.

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