Ara's Blog- inside the brain
What’s happening inside that head of yours?
As family members in relationship with someone who is dependent on substances, we can feel as though we’re trying to navigate in the dark. We do not understand our loved one’s behaviour, and their decision to continue to use is baffling- if not infuriating and down right heart breaking.
Your loved one’s continual desire to use (regardless of the costs) can be attributed to what is happening inside their head because mind altering substances (alcohol & drugs) literally affect our brains in various ways.
I need to preface this with the fact that I am not a neuroscientist. However, for me (both personally and professionally) knowing a little about the effects mind altering substances have on the brain, has created curiosity and problem solving options while decreasing feelings of judgment and helplessness within me. This has enabled me to move forward with hope and understanding.
So lets navigate this together
The main area in the brain impacted by mind altering substances is the pleasure and reward pathway. These pathways have a high concentration of the neurotransmitter dopamine- a naturally occurring chemical that produces feelings of pleasure- dopamine makes us feel really good! Ever wonder why seeing someone you love, or indulging in chocolate or another favourite food makes you feel so good? That’s the dopamine effect right there- nice isn’t it!
We are designed as humans to repeat behaviours that make us feel good- like sex and eating for example. Repeating these behaviours provides us with another hit of dopamine but there’s something more going on here, this naturally occurring feel good chemical (manufactured in our own brains) ensures our biological survival- clever aren’t we?!
Okay, now we understand dopamine’s effect on a non-addicted brain, lets examine the brain of a person dependent on mind altering substances.
When we use mind altering substances our brains get flooded with dopamine and we feel amazing (and of course don’t forget we are designed to repeat feel good behaviors) but this creates a number of problems within our brains.
Problem 1: this dopamine is produced by artificial means and disrupts our natural ability to produce, balance, and absorb dopamine. This means that we seek out mind altering substances at higher and higher levels (this is called tolerance) over time just to feel okay. The brain then attempts to maintain balance and reacts by lowering the amount of naturally produced dopamine.
Problem 2: the brain has downgraded its natural dopamine levels in response to the artificial hit it is getting from mind altering substances. When you take alcohol and drugs away, there is not enough naturally occurring dopamine to feel okay. In early recovery it is not uncommon for people to enter a state of depression and exhibit little or no interest in life. Furthermore, this inability to feel any pleasure from life contributes to cravings (often physically uncomfortable) that can influence a decision to return to using the mind altering substance after a period of white knuckled abstinence.
The good news is that the brain can recover and learn new ways of functioning. However, this takes some time. A combination of behavioural and sometimes medical interventions, as well as your understanding and positive communication, will support a return to a naturally functioning brain.
There are 2 other structures in our brains that are put out of balance by mind altering substances- the pre frontal cortex, and the limbic system.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that acts like a stop sign. It’s the consequences and planning part of our brain. Mind altering substances shut this part of the brain down. How many of us have said “I would not have done that (insert embarrassing behavior) if I was sober?” A functioning prefrontal cortex is what enables us to say no to an impulse. When the pre frontal cortex has shut down the brain will urgently go forward with the desire to use, this is an automatic process and happens outside of our ability to control it.
The limbic system is the part of our brain that is responsible for 3 key functions- emotions, memories, and stimulation. Using mind altering substances causes this part of the brain to get highly excited. The brain remembers the good feelings that accompany alcohol or drug use and thus, anticipates the reward of using.
Lowered dopamine levels, a disabled prefrontal cortex, and an overly excited limbic system, all contribute to your loved one’s dependence on mind altering substances. Understanding that this is not their fault can lower your frustration and allow you some freedom of choice in how you support them. It is the difference in separating your loved one’s behaviour from, “they are useless and are not trying hard enough” to “I know that they can not experience much pleasure at the moment I might suggest a walk.”
So there you have it, a basic guide to what’s occurring neurologically in your loved one’s brain. I hope this information offers you a different way of interpreting, understanding, and supporting your loved one and your self towards recovery
As always, learning and changing your behaviour benefits both you, and your loved one. How you think about a problem is the first step to a solution, and you are in control of what you think.