How Addictions Hijack Your Brain
When water follows the same path for a prolonged amount of time, the ground is worn down, eventually creating a ravine. The deeper these ravines become, the more water is held, increasing the likelihood that the water will continue following that same path. This is an over-simplified way of introducing the concept of how addictions can hijack your brain.
Our brains are astonishingly complex. As we learn a new skill, our neurons create networks, or pathways, in order to accomplish that skill. The more you perform an action, the stronger and deeper those pathways become. These actions become habits you don’t need to think about doing, such as walking. If the actions are pleasurable, a chemical called dopamine is released which associates the action with pleasure. A part of your brain associated with emotion called the amygdala takes note of that pleasure and associates the good feeling with the action.
The Amygdala Hijack
Once your brain has created pathways for an action those actions end up in a part of your brain that controls habits. Normally, an emotional trigger or impulse would start in the amygdala and then go to the part of the brain that governs choice: the prefrontal cortex. This is what helps you to decide whether or not you will perform an action. However, the amygdala has the ability to bypass the decision-making part of your brain altogether and connect directly to the habit part of your brain. This hijack is not always bad – it is what powers your “flight or flight” response which gives you the ability to act without thinking when a dangerous situation arises. However, in the case of addiction, research has shown that the amygdala can become so accustomed to an addiction creating pleasure that it creates a shortcut directly to the habit. This is why addicts can find themselves in a place where the only pleasure they receive is from the addiction and will act without reason in order to receive it.
Retrain your Brain
The good news is that just like your body can heal itself when damaged, your brain also has this capability. Even once detrimental pathways have been formed or neural damage has occurred, your brain attempts to make new pathways to work around the damage. This is called neuroplasticity. Through treatment, we can retrain the brain to create new pathways and new pleasures, which can change our lives. While the old pathways will still exist, we can make steps toward recovery.
At OneEighty our addiction and substance abuse treatment services provide a comprehensive program that helps patients achieve a lasting recovery. Please call our Main Office at 330.264.8498 for more information.